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Leading Article: Not much honour in a gong fashioned for another age

THE NEW Year's honours list is a hardy perennial. Every year it brings forth the same sparse crop of civil servants and "the great and the good", accompanied by a sprinkling of entertainers and sports personalities.

Many of the individuals honoured have indeed done "good works", as well as entertained us. Only a very few hard-hearted citizens will begrudge honouring the acting of Nigel Hawthorn, awarded a knighthood; Lenny Henry, now CBE, has worked hard for Comic Relief as well as making millions laugh. Sporting achievement, whether of the cricketer Angus Fraser or the heptathlete Denise Lewis, is also recognised.

But that very lack of controversy marks the flaw in this system. We all recognise the achievements of such people: they are feted in the press, and by the public, at the appropriate time of their success. The adulation of crowds and audiences is their life blood, and no amount of official approval makes any difference. The public know greatness when they see it: they do not require prompting to acknowledge it.

It is often those who have passed their best, whose dangerous satirical and artistic edge has been blunted and who have been absorbed into the Establishment, who are honoured. It will be do them little good. Those same satirists have done much to create a meritocratic society, in which many of those honoured have stopped using the letters after their name in everyday life: they are aware of how pompous they would seem if they did.

It is the same with politicians, even though the hope of peace in Northern Ireland has prompted many of the awards. There is again no question that the men and women involved in the peace process have shown political bravery, stamina and commitment. Two men from the New World, in particular, came to the aid of the Old: General John de Chastelain and Senator George Mitchell, chairmen of the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement. They gave up their time and energies entirely voluntarily, and deserve our thanks. But they already had our gratitude before they had letters after their names.

"Ordinary people" - nurses, midwives, policemen - are also recognised today. The honours system, as reformed by John Major when he was prime minister, has made strides in this direction. But New Labour's failure to change it radically is a sign that the whole idea has become obsolete. The mantra of "modernisation", repeated so often, does not seem to extend to this list, grey and uninspiring beyond the facade of celebrity.

There are exceptions. John Major deserves an important share of the praise that has been raining down on Tony Blair, David Trimble and John Hume. He took the risk, with little encouragement from many in his own party, of engaging with republicans and nationalists. It was his talks process that eventually succeeded. France and the US have the Legion d'honneur and the Congressional Medal of Honour for people who rise so far above what is expected of them. If we reserved honours for such outstanding examples, they would mean more.

Such a system would end the bore of bestowing honours on civil servants. Even though their automatic right to such recognition has been abolished, such a practice has no place in a society no longer willing to accept that the man in Whitehall knows best. In no other field is professional advancement further rewarded with the recognition of the state: why should civil servants be different?

Very few people appear to think this list means anything beyond anachronism, designed as it was for an age when the Court stood at the apex of a rigid social order. When the Government kicks away one of the props of that social order, the hereditary House of Lords, it would do well to reshape the honours system as well.