British honours: the dignity of Ruritania

'Can we really attract to our public service only those who dream of having CMG after their names?'
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The Independent Online
Trafficking in honours has always been part of the seamy underside of British politics. Politicians from Pitt to Lloyd George dabbled in it, sometimes on a fairly heroic scale. More recently governments, political parties and sundry lobbyists, middlemen and brokers have done their bit to pollute the fount of honour.

It is not a pretty sight. But how do you ban this unseemly trade? There is only one way, and that is to abolish, or at least drastically curtail, the profusion of honours themselves.

Internationally, the British love of titles has become an embarrassing joke. At international meetings, half a dozen plain misters, including those who will take the decision and whose underlings draft the comminques, get together with one Brit whose impotence sits oddly with the grandiloquence of his titles.

Domestically, it is more serious still. Orders and titles, their names redolent of feudal privilege and imperial arrogance, subtly convey all sorts of archaic messages. Take, for a start, the Order of the British Empire. Why on earth are we still dignifying and rewarding genuinely worthy persons of all kinds with various ranks as if their work for opera or medicine, for local government or sport, for charity or the music business, had somehow been performed in the name of this once glorious but long dead empire?

The whole honours system is encrusted with barnacles from our feudal, then our imperial, past, and from our continuing fascination with faded glories and insiderish absurdities. Why, for example, should British diplomats be decorated with the Order of St Michael and St George, a relic of the brief British rule over Corfu and the Ionian islands?

A number of hoary arguments are traditionally put forward in defence of the whole creaking institution of the honours system. It is said that it is a useful and economical way of rewarding public servants and - a sexist nudge - of mollifying their wives. The argument is as insulting as it is ridiculous. Can we really attract to our public service only those who dream of ending up with the letters CMG ("Call me God") or GCMG (God calls me God!") after their names, and whose wives would leave them if they would not thereby lose the chance of being called Lady this or Lady that? Most of the ambassadors I have known have been better than that, and so have their wives.

Some say that it is good to reward the unsung heroes of the unglamorous corners of national life. There is more than a little that is patronizing about that argument. To reward one of hundreds of dedicated primary school teachers, a couple out of thousands of admirable nurses, is to tarnish a democratic society's gratitude with a reminder of arbitrary government.

No honours at all, then? Some honours, after all, are properly given and generally felt to be deserved. Military medals, for a start, given for valour on the battlefield, are awarded by all democratic society, and most would feel it wrong if we abolished those tributes to a virtue we all admire and need. Most democracies, too, honour outstanding achievement, whether in government or in civil life. But we in Britain honour too many, in too perfunctory a manner, so that real merit is in danger of being half-insulted.

Everyone knows that knighthoods are given, not only for contributing to Tory party funds, but to diplomats and civil servants, to military bureaucrats and superannuated politicians who have not quite made it to the top - and for journalists who loyally support the party in power, especially if their newspapers are badly in need of a little honour.

Surely, it would be more decorous if the system were abolished whereby when lawyers feel they are successful enough to charge higher fees, the fiction is entered into that they are counsel to the monarch.

There are few things New Labour could undertake that would be more effective in convincing us that it is serious about wanting to create a New Britain than to take an axe and prune the honours system ruthlessly. Virtue, after all, is its own reward; honour, in a democratic society, comes not from No 10 Downing Street or from Buckingham Place but from the freely given respect of fellow-citizens.