Editor-At-Large: Arise, Dame Janet, for services to boots

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The Independent Online

If ever there was proof that the honours system is an embarrassment, surely it is the awarding of an OBE to the editor of British Vogue. Her triumph? Remaining in the job for 12 years, over which time she has boosted the circulation by 10 per cent. The annual New Year's Honours list manages both to celebrate the worthy and dignify the undeserving in equal measure. Alexandra Shulman is a pleasant woman and good company, and as editor of a glossy magazine in a fickle market, has lasted longer than most. But why should someone be fêted for simply being good at their job, which is to persuade glossy advertisers to pay through the nose for space and to target impressionable young female readers by flogging them a fantasy version of life they can't afford or fit over their backsides? Vogue always likes to talk about "self improvement", but have you noticed that it always costs money, and generally features some of the stuff so lovingly photographed on its pages and pages of advertisements?

And why should Mr William Jordan, whose family company makes breakfast cereal, be created MBE for "services to the food industry"? At this rate I shall be made a Dame for services to the outdoor hiking equipment industry, as I have certainly purchased and tested more than my fair share of boots, waterproof jackets and fleeces over a lifetime of rambling around the globe. Just as ludicrous are the OBEs for that writer of chronically predictable farces, Ray Cooney, and Leslie Thomas, author of Virgin Soldiers, or the honours for Roger Daltrey and Eric Sykes. Culturally, this list smacks of suburbia pure and simple. It's about as cutting edge as a night out in Ewell. Do you have to be over 55 and wrinkled before your contribution to the arts is deemed worthy of reward?

The honours list is based on the myth that people who do a good job deserve a bizarre set of letters after their name - and as a result they will feel better about themselves and we will feel good about recognising their achievements. In the case of the deserving Olympic athletes like Matthew Pinsent and Kelly Holmes it would be far more productive if real money were set aside to help them train properly without having to scrape around for sponsorship. But MBEs and the like cost the Government absolutely nothing, which is why they are so ready to dole them out. Our athletes accomplish so much with so little public funding, such poor sporting facilities that many of them have to train abroad, that awarding them an honour is adding insult to injury. And to include on the honours list a whole flotilla of civil servants, royal secretaries, police chiefs and captains of industry emphasises the sheer cynicism of the exercise even further.

Why should people such as Derek Wanless (former head of NatWest) who conducted a review of the National Health Service and Mike Tomlinson (former chief inspector of schools) who produced the report proposing the scrapping of GCSEs and A-levels, be worthy of knighthoods? Likewise, John Gieve, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, the man who had memory failure when it came to the case of the visa for Mr Blunkett's lover's nanny. Others with dubious credentials include Doug Smith, the former head of the Child Support Agency - hardly a huge success story there - and Richard Bowker, the man who jumped ship from the Strategic Rail Authority before it was scrapped. The problem with the current honours system is that buried within it are the real unsung British heroes, from postmen to charity workers. People who have struggled for years on low salaries, giving selflessly of their time for little reward, dedicating their lives to others, without the benefit of protected pensions, fat salaries or expense accounts. I agree with Benjamin Zephaniah that most honours are irrelevant and insulting. Just as the current system of funding political parties leads to the dispensing of favours and sinecures, so does this outdated practice of handing out antediluvian medals and awards.

I hope that Labour win the next election with a small enough majority for radical changes to be forced through the Commons ensuring that in future party funding is transparent and publicly accountable, and then the honours system is overhauled from top to bottom. Who thinks we still need knights, dames and MBEs in the 21st century? Just as Mr Zephaniah pointed out, we no longer have an empire, so we should acknowledge we live in an egalitarian society. By all means reward those who have truly made sacrifices for the public good (by public nomination and voting) but put an end once and for all to every single other kind of award. No one should be rewarded for doing a job they are paid to do, be it Anna Massey for acting, Digby Jones for running the CBI, or Barry Davies for describing the ball skills of David Beckham.

And if we have a new system of people's honours, then allow those truly worthy people chosen by the public the opportunity to contribute something to political life, to offer us the benefit of all their knowledge and experience, via a second senior house in Parliament, or a special Assembly. At a time when politicians and top civil servants are not held in high public esteem, this is a chance to inject some people with social commitment, people skills and intelligence back into our democratic process. There is no doubt that the next election will see the lowest turnout for many years. The Prime Minister cannot be bothered to return from his luxury holiday in the sun to oversee our response to the greatest human tragedy for many decades (perhaps mindful of that such a move might be interpreted as a vote-garnering ploy) but by remaining in Egypt he allows the current poor relationship between politicians and the public to deteriorate even further.

The honours list is a disgrace, and he should have the guts to scrap it.