It should be possible for us as a nation to express our thanks, without any controversy, to people like David Saint and Robert Coulter, outstanding fire officers named in the honours list today. Yet when we gather to laud our heroes, at the heart of our national celebration are not the British values that really matter - democracy and pluralism - but the worst of all our values: snobbery, inheritance, sycophancy. As so often, the clutter of our feudal history blocks our way. Everything the state does on behalf of the British people is contaminated by the monarchy.
Because the awards come not from us, the people, but from the "Queen", we cannot congratulate our national heroes - whether they are rugby players or charity workers - without also reinforcing an absurd system of hereditary privilege. If you want to accept an honour from your country, you have to bow before a billionairess who is our head of state simply because of her bloodline. You might even have to subject yourself to the nonsense of being a Commander of the British Empire, thus allying yourself with a racist pedigree.
The constitution in the US forbids the granting of any "Title of Nobility", and - although social mobility is in reality even worse than in many European countries - Americans see and believe themselves to be equal in status. That is not yet the case in Britain. Many working class people such as my mother still have a certain instinctive sense that somebody with a peerage or a baronetcy is in some way "special", and somebody she should be intimidated by, even though she is smarter and more hard-working than all of them.
It is tempting to say that the system is so rotten with these reactionary little prejudices that we should just pack away the gongs and chuck them into the Thames. This is happening anyway, as more and more people decline the gongs - and who wouldn't want to be lined up with refuseniks such asJG Ballard, Michael Frayn, Nigella Lawson and Dawn French rather than with fawning monarchists such as Barbara Windsor and Cilla Black?
But the reform, rather than the outright rejection, of honours gives us all a chance to snatch back our national symbols. The hijacking of the representations of the state by the right has warped British (and particularly English) nationalism for generations. If our patriotism is refracted through a system based on hierarchy and heredity, it affects the way we see our country in subtle ways. British people tend to see power as something emanating from the rich and the powerful rather than from - the most beautiful words in the English language - "we, the people". This is reinforced every time the monarch hands down gongs.
Of course tinkering with the honours system and the wider system of monarchy is almost entirely symbolic, and we could all wake up in an honours-free, Queen-free Britain tomorrow to find that there were still gaping class inequalities and denial of opportunity. Yet symbols affect our self-image in significant ways. Every country is, as the sociologist Benedict Anderson explained, "an imagined community". We never see anything more than a tiny number of our fellow citizens; they are as alien to us as the vast bulk of French or Argentinian or Sierra Leonean people.
We are bound together in our imagination, through shared values and shared symbols. This imaginary glue can take many forms. It could consist of shared allegiance to our democracy, our mutual respect for the welfare state, and our pooled contributions to the tax system. All this would reinforce progressive values. Or the glue could consist of outdated values such as loyalty to the unelected Queen and the honours and titles that are derived from her. This latter sense of Britishness skews our country in destructive ways.
At the moment, an unseen, unknown group of civil servants hand out awards in the name of the monarch. They sift through submissions from the humble population, and combine them with politically motivated suggestions from the Prime Minister and a few others. Could there be a worse illustration of how the British state often works? We approach power as supplicants; we have no redress or comeback, indeed no knowledge of how it works; we accept what our politicians hand down in the name of a hereditary leader. If this is the way we express pride in our country, count me out.
It would be preferable to this farce to adopt the approach of the Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who flogged off awards to the highest bidder. "If they are stupid enough to pay, why should I refuse?" he said after it was revealed he had pocketed the money for campaign contributions. Capitalism is better than feudalism. Better still would be to have a process we could be proud of, one that expressed the good things about Britain.
For too long, progressives have run away from crafting our nationalism and changing our national symbols. Jack Straw warned a few years ago that the popular view of Britishness had become "a narrow, exclusionary, conservative one", in part because "some of the left [tend] to wash their hands of the whole notion of nationhood". He was right: the tendency of people with instincts like mine is to be sickened by flag-waving nationalism and to walk away from it, leaving national symbols such as the honours list to be handled, unmolested, by monarchist toadies.
The practical effect is that the people who rhapsodise about Britain are usually nasty old right-wingers, and normal people looking for an outlet for their pride in their country find that the discourse has been shaped by Tories. Because British nationalism only comes in a right-wing flavour, Britain appears to be an inherently right-wing country, loving its monarch-imbued gongs and ever-so-'umble curtsying - and too many of us progressives acquiesce in this image.
Instead, we need to embrace pride in our country and reshape its institutions to reflect that contemporary sense of pride. One of the best tributes to Britain I have read is my colleague Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's book Who Do We Think We Are?. She loves Britain as it is and as it can be, not - as frothing old reactionaries such as Norman Tebbit do - as it once was. Nationalism is not an inherently aggressive force, any more than loving your own house means you want to trash your neighbour's.
Instead of continuing with a silly honours system or junking the idea of honouring especially impressive citizens altogether, a Labour government should recreate it in line with decent national values. It is not hard to figure out what this would involve: separate it from the monarchy entirely; hand over all appointments to an independent committee, perhaps selected at random, like juries, once a year; and give the honours proper names rather than those left over from days of rank snobbery. If Mr Straw was serious about crafting a progressive nationalism, the loathsome symbols of the old nationalism need to be dispensed with. Perhaps you should make an appointment with the Prime Minister, Jack.Reuse content