Leading Article: A reflection of merit

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR signalled this week that the reform of the honours system which he is considering is unlikely to be rapid or far-reaching. The Prime Minister said changes would not be 'wholesale or dramatic' because the system is 'a proper reflection of merit in our society'.

Given such a steer, the report that the Cabinet Office is preparing for Mr Major is, alas, unlikely to be a radical document, if only because so many senior civil and foreign servants remain wedded to their arcane system of hierarchical honours. Moreover, in spite of Mr Major's commitment to a more open style of government, it is very unlikely that the Cabinet Office's analysis and recommendations will be made public. Two reasons are given for the caution and the secrecy: honours are granted in the name of the Queen, and, it is said, a degree of mystery enhances the prestige of the system.

This is a missed opportunity, in particular because the review was initiated by a prime minister who dislikes snobbery and privilege. The truth is that the honours system - like so many British institutions - has fallen into some disrepute. For many people the twice-yearly ritual has become an occasion for mild contempt. In so far as the public registers that the Queen and not the Prime Minister awards honours, the present system alienates the monarch from her subjects.

There are three reasons for public indifference. The first is that senior public servants and military personnel can expect the appropriate honours to come up with the rations. All that is necessary is to serve time and to keep out of trouble and membership of the Chivalrous Order of the Bath, the Order of St Michael and St George or some similarly arcane fraternity is almost automatic.

Next there is the often murky business of political honours. Not since Lloyd George has it been possible to purchase honours off the peg at set rates. But it remains true that many of those who contribute to the funds of the governing party, or who have ingratiated themselves with any one of a number of prime ministers, can reasonably hope for a knighthood at worst and a peerage at best. Finally, there is a series of anachronistic and distasteful class distinctions, which the division between Member of the British Empire and holder of the British Empire Medal best exemplifies. The latter is awarded to 'those who do not qualify by rank' for a higher award.

There are good reasons for retaining some form of honours system. It is, at a utilitarian level, an inexpensive and non-corrupting way of recognising exceptional merit. But to be effective, awards must give genuine pleasure to the bearer and incite feelings of delight and satisfaction in the public. To achieve these ends, a reforming prime minister would do away with what Mr Major described as 'automaticity' in the public sector. There are sound reasons for recognising individual acts of courage, kindness or service, but civil servants, who are nowadays adequately paid, should be rewarded only for performance above and beyond the call of duty. Political honours should be abolished, although it would obviously be necessary to continue to create working peers. And where honours are graded, it should be done on the basis of the deed performed and not on the social standing of the recipient.