What is the honours system for? Is it to award consolation prizes? Is it to provide an automatic garnish to certain jobs? Or is it to reward an exceptional contribution to society that would otherwise go unrecognised? With yet another row over nominations brewing, a decision is long overdue.
First, the athletes. This newspaper would be the first to congratulate sporting triumph of all kinds – disabled or able-bodied. Both the Olympics and Paralympics have marked a high water mark for British sport and the achievements of our sportsmen and women merit the highest praise. But a winning performance, an Olympic medal, or a world record, are, surely, achievement enough.
The assumption that a gong must follow is simply demeaning, and the decision from No 10 to create a whole new list – to ensure that the number of Olympians to receive honours is not limited by normal rules – adds to the already rampant (and devaluing) inflation. It can only be hoped that all those who laboured so tirelessly behind the scenes to make the Games such a success will receive equal attention.
And then there is the matter of the sacked cabinet ministers. Leaving aside the gaucheness of letting it be known that the five men would receive gongs, and only subsequently hurrying out the hint that the two women can expect peerages, the shenanigans over honours that followed this week’s reshuffle reduces them to little more than a reward for failure.
Quite rightly, accusations of abuse swiftly followed. But Mr Cameron’s plan, while ill judged, is hardly unprecedented. Indeed, the whole system is already largely discredited. As MPs noted only last week, too often honours are awarded for nothing more than “doing the day job”, with civil servants and celebrities still often outnumbering ordinary people and the taint of political patronage yet to be wholly dispelled.
It is time to call a halt. The system needs radical reform, removing the politics, establishing an independent process for considering nominees, and putting an end to the inclusion of swathes of civil servants, politicians, celebrities and sports stars. Honours should be reserved for those who go beyond the call of duty but are neither recognised nor duly remunerated. Anything else, and Britain’s gongs will lose all value.