OBE? Thanks, but no thanks

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The Independent Online
Britain's honours system does not bring honour. It is secretive and seductive. It selects on ill-defined criteria. It is meretricious, redolent with the aroma of an aristocratic legend. I was offered and refused the OBE in 1993. I tried to discover who had recommended me, but this is "confidential". It was for "services to education": I had been head of a comprehensive school for 15 years. So little did my nominator know about me that the Prime Minister's letter informing me of my recommendation was sent to another JD Anderson in the same area. Had he not been honest, he could quite easily have received an OBE for services he had never rendered. I wonder if this has ever happened before?

Mr Major had a policy of open government. Yet clear criteria for receiving an honour are nowhere publicly stated. The most that has been said is that they should be given for "merit", and particularly for voluntary service. How can a citizen, with sound reasons, agree or disagree on who does or who does not receive an honour when the whole process is shrouded in obfuscation?

I cannot agree with a system that rewards people who have made themselves known to the "right people" - who may then recommend them for an honour. I happen to have been to Cambridge; in Rotary; an active churchman; and a fairly high-profile headteacher. I know several school heads who have successfully done far more difficult jobs than mine. None has an OBE; I doubt if they all refused them.

The graduation of honours, OBE for heads of an officer class and MBE for other ranks, illustrates what is wrong with our layered society. The Ruritanian seeking of distinctions and the trappings of class and privilege were well satirised as the little people of Lilliput by Swift 250 years ago; they have increased in number ever since.

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire may have made sense when there was a British Empire consisting of more than a few rocky remnants. Since I have always supported the dismantling of the Empire in favour of a true Commonwealth, I could hardly be an "officer" of the former. The name of the order is now utterly outdated. For me, OBE stands for Obsolete British Emblem.

Societies such as the USA succeed well enough without an honours system. We do not need honours to reward success. I would argue that the intrinsic feeling of self-fulfilment of successful people is quite sufficient. A letter from the Prime Minister thanking a citizen for their services would be far more acceptable to many. It would also reduce the cynicism about some honours for those who put time into charitable work.

I would urge the Government to examine critically this symbol of Britain as a heritage theme park. I would urge others who agree, especially if they have refused "honours", to write to me so that we can press Labour to bring to birth a new Britain where morality, skill and hard work are rewarded by honour, not "honours".

The writer can be contacted at 1 Gillbeck Close, Baildon, Shipley, Yorkshire BD17 6TJ.

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