Honours of little merit: The New Year list will not bring much fanfare for the common man or woman, says Michael De-la-Noy (CORRECTED)

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JOHN MAJOR'S vaunted new-look honours list, part of his intention to create a 'classless society', will hit the headlines on Friday. Because the British are so class-oriented, and therefore prone to drooling over titles, the two half-yearly honours lists always make the front pages. But this time there will be some hard-hitting leading articles as well if - as is suggested in today's Independent - the Prime Minister fails to produce a truly radical shake-up of this demeaned method of rewarding mediocre political time-servers with knighthoods while placating sub-postmistresses with MBEs.

Anyone who denies that the British honours system is unique in reflecting and perpetuating class divisions need only examine the structure of the orders of chivalry: an ambassador becomes a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael & St George; a first secretary becomes a Companion. The clerk of the House of Commons is in line to become a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath; the ceremonial officer, the civil servant who organises the honours lists, a Companion of the Bath.

It may be thought undesirable to tinker with historical aberrations - although only the Garter, founded in 1348, the Thistle, revived in 1687, and the ubiquitous Insignia of Knights Bachelor, which originated around 1220, have any serious claims to ancient lineage. But what Mr Major must be seen to do is abolish the system of Buggins' turn.

At present, diplomats and civil servants receive awards not for what they have done but because of who they are and how many years of perfectly routine work they have put in. In future, alongside the publication of every CMG for an under secretary, every CBE for an employee of the Inland Revenue, there should be a citation explaining exactly what particular and spectacular service the recipient has performed beyond the work he or she is paid to perform.

Routine awards to members of the armed services, as distinct from decorations for gallantry, also need to be pruned if they are to retain any semblance of distinction.

Awards for gallantry have long been one of the most deplorable methods of keeping the social pecking order under control. When in 1985, I first advocated abolishing crosses for officers and medals for men in favour of decorations that made no distinction between ranks, I was roundly abused by right-wing commentators. But I flatter myself that the Prime Minister has already been influenced by this idea, and he is quite right to be planning an end to invidious distinctions where bravery is concerned.

The argument that a captain deserves a military cross because he has more responsibility than a corporal, who might only receive a military medal, holds no water; awards within the Order of the Bath are available, if we must clutter up the chests of senior officers. But almost every DSO, and certainly every MC (awarded to officers), and every DCM and MM (awarded to other ranks), recognise individual acts of gallantry, and how a private can be thought less brave than a subaltern if both have performed equally courageous acts is beyond comprehension.

Unfortunately, however, there is every indication that the Prime Minister is on the point of paving the path to hell with yet more good intentions. In the Birthday Honours List in June there were some military citations whose attributes one can only describe as farcical. A colonel received the DSO for 'charm'; another officer who was decorated was described as 'honest and thoroughly reliable'. One would hope so. It seems that in times of relative peace there is a temptation to continue dishing out a fixed quota of decorations, irrespective of intrinsic acts of bravery, just as there has always been a quota for the Orders of the Bath, St Michael & St George and the British Empire.

This idea is what demeans the honours lists, which are always too long and filled up with far too many undistinguished people.

What is required is a more imaginative use of fewer honours. There is no reason in principle to ban politicans from the honours system, but when every sacked cabinet minister is shovelled into the House of Lords, and no fewer than three failed cabinet ministers can troop, as they did when fired by John Major, to Buckingham Palace and come away as members of the Order of the Companions of Honour, then the word honour has indeed taken on a new connotation.

Expenses paid to members of the House of Lords are now so generous that in the course of a year a superannuated half- wit who has perhaps inherited a peerage or been ennobled because he was useless as a minister can pick up pounds 8,000 a year. There are peers, both hereditary and life, who will admit in private they could not hope to meet their household bills without popping into the Lords for a few minutes every day. Yet these people are empowered to legislate.

If the Prime Minister is serious about reforming the honours system he must reform the composition of the House of Lords. We do not need garrulous actors, dubious industrialists or third-rate writers conducting the affairs of the nation. If a second chamber in Parliament is required, a Prime Minister with classlessness on his mind will institute a full-time professional House of Senators.

The honours system has always been manipulated by the Establishment for the benefit of its servants. Hence the KCB for the Queen's private secretary and MBE for the Prime Minister's detective. So greedy is the Establishment that it is not thought at all odd that the Queen's private secretary, amongst others, should receive not one but two knighthoods. How much recognition does anyone need?

When India obtained independence in 1947, the three existing Indian orders were put into abeyance. The same should now be done with the all-purpose Order of the British Empire - not because we no longer have an empire but because the OBE, instituted by George V in 1917, was expressly designed to draw into the web of the honours system the proletariat, and in so doing to make plain where in the social hierarchy everyone stood.

There should be one new general order, for which anyone would be eligible, with which to recognise genuinely meritorious service, and it should have none of the British Empire's distinctions as between Knight Grand Cross, Knight Commander, Commanders, Officers and Members.

As for political honours, so many of which have been purchased, John Major needs to give to the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee some real powers. Its brief is almost entirely nebulous. It turned down Jeffrey Archer for a life peerage in Margaret Thatcher's resignation honours list after he had paid pounds 2,000 to a prostitute he had never met, but then agreed to Mr Major's request that he become a peer in recognition of his services to literature.

The criteria for awards within the arts are often daft. How can a serious honours system contain as Dames of the British Empire both Barbara Cartland and Iris Murdoch? How can a Prime Minister with an ounce of imagination fob off Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Michael Stroud with OBEs?

Others who need to be recognised with an appropriately imaginative gesture are people such as PC Ray Hall and PC Gary Angrove, who in November 1992 prevented a potentially catastrophic IRA explosion in Stoke Newington, London. The sooner honour takes its proper place in the honours system the better, but I fear that 31 December may produce a rather damp squib.

The writer is author of 'The Honours System', revised edition, Virgin, 1992.

(Photographs omitted)