But while the Prime Minister is considering a new award that more closely reflects merit and a scaling down of the 'gong by rank' system, this time around Mr Nicholls and 270 other ordinary civilians propping up the pyramid receive the British Empire Medal.
Mr Nicholls has been quietly and effectively improving the lot of people with disabilities since 1959. He and others - such as Derek Butler, formerly head verger at Ely Cathedral, Kenneth Chapman, principal keeper at Bull Point lighthouse, North Devon and, from the armed services, Kang Shik Ming, who gets a bar to an existing BEM for laundry services to the Royal Navy - are rewarded 'for meritorious service to men and women who do not qualify by rank for the higher awards'.
In the future - though the Prime Minister's office emphasised yesterday that the change towards earning honours would be a 'gradual, incremental' process - senior civil servants, judges and the military may not get guaranteed awards by virtue of their rank or for doing their jobs properly.
That could see the end of automatic rises through the Order of St Michael and St George, mainly reserved for top diplomats - Companion or CMG, known as 'Call Me God'; to Knight Commander, KCMG, 'Kindly Call Me God'; to Knight Grand Cross, GCMG, 'God Calls Me God'.
Thus Sir Ewen Fergusson, Britain's ambassador in Paris, who got his KCMG in 1987 when he took up his post, gets his GCMG this time around. Nigel Broomfield, the newly-appointed ambassador in Bonn, is duly rewarded with the KCMG.
Martin Eaton, a foreign and commonwealth official, gets the traditional CMG award for Whitehall staff. But he, for one, will have been marked out as 'earning' it - he drafted the Danish Maastricht deal presented at the Edinburgh summit.
The highest honour this year in the Order of the Bath (Civil Division), the preserve of the home Civil Service, goes to Tom Legg, permanent secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department.
Personable, well-liked and quietly efficient, the award of the KCB to Mr Legg was none the less cited by legal commentators yesterday as an example of the automaticity of the system. 'He has managed the department, once a sleepy backwater, through recent difficult times,' one said, 'but he is not momentous.'
A crop of knighthoods go to long- serving Tory MPs, traditional rewards that are unlikely to be tampered with in any reform.
Cranley Onslow (Woking), former chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, becomes a knight along with Roger Moate (Faversham), a reputed rebel in last month's Maastrict debate after voting against the Government on the second reading of the Bill to ratify the treaty. He supported the Government in the crucial November vote.
Jerry Wiggin (C, Weston-super- Mare), Terence Higgins (C, Worthing), and the former Tory MP Michael Latham are similarly honoured. Sir Peter Hordern (C, Horsham), Sir Peter Emery (C, Honiton) and Sir John Wheeler (C, Westminster North) become privy counsellors, as does Baroness Blatch, Minister of State for Education, and Sir Percy Cradock, an expert on Chinese affairs and formerly foreign policy advisor to Margaret Thatcher.
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