Leading Article: Arise Sir Elton, and enjoy the joke. It really doesn't hurt

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's that time of year again, when pop stars and football players, Olympic medal winners, comedians, bell-ringers and Brown Owls, astronomers and architects, microsurgeons and musicfest managers, Samaritans and swimming teachers, lollipop ladies and that other kind of lady that is quaintly described as being "in waiting", all get to be listed together in the annual New Year Honours ritual. And part of the ritual - obligatory, really - is for The Independent to agonise in the nicest possible way over why we bother with this business at all.

Once again, with a certain ambiguity of purpose, we find ourselves devoting two pages of fine Norwegian spruce to listing a motley collection of names chosen by the Establishment to join (in a minor way) the Establishment, or at least to be given its condescending, lofty recognition, bless their 'earts.

Why do we print this list? Well, for one thing, it's immensely enlightening and entertaining to read. You learn delightful things. (Did you know that old "Fluff" Freeman is 70 - 70, for heaven's sake? Or that the creator of The Wombles is still up and about in Aldeburgh, of all places?) If you were a Martian (or, say, an American - about the same thing when it comes to interpreting British social manners), you would find fascinating material for research on pages 18 and 19 of this newspaper.

Most prominent glory goes to a man called Elton Hector John, a chap who is considerably stranger than his name, which is anyway not his own, but an invented appellation which someone once thought would make an improvement on Reginald Dwight, a name that some might regard as stranger still. Mr Dwight's claim to having a sword slapped on his well-padded shoulder is ostensibly his service to charity and showbusiness (and probably football, for all we know); really, it's a populist gesture by the People's Establishment (defined as the Blair-Windsor love-in) towards all those folk who found his funeral performance of "Candle in the Wind" their biggest emotional release of the year.

Let's be clear about this. Knights are characters who joust up and down with lances, dressed in heavy metal and waving fancy crests. Sir Elton, as we must soon call him, is indeed prone to dressing up in outlandish costumery, though somewhat less than he was. But quite why we continue to garland illustrious folk with titles that are best followed by names such as Launcelot and Galahad, it is hard to say.

The good side of the honours system is obvious. If you run your eye down that long list of MBEs and OBEs you are effectively tracing the backbone of decent, upstanding Britain. It is a roll-call of the kind of characters who keep thousands of institutions and communities and charities alive and busy. Behind many there is no doubt a story to warm the soul: the Suffolk postmistress who is no doubt the civic heart of Dalham; the Aldermaston woman whose services to the community include "particularly the Nativity play"; the founder of the Toot Hill Dance Band, wherever that may be. They, and the hospice workers and fundraisers and primary school teachers who so deserve, at least once in their lives, to be recognised - yes, honoured - by the citizenry to whom they give so much.

But the honours list, also, is given over to antiquated imperial absurdities. The long lists of civil servants and soldiers picking up their Buggins's- turn gongs. The courtiers, with their bizarre lists of letters that are granted for simply doing their job - something that the rest of the nation does without much recognition. And then the even greater absurdities, of anti-Establishment intellectuals such as Eric Hobsbawm and David Lodge - to name but two - who nevertheless find it in themselves to accept orders of an empire which they ought to regard as an anachronism.

One long-standing angle of attack on the honours system is that it entrenches privilege and patronage in a debilitating way - a way that other, more modern countries do not find necessary. This is mostly nonsense. For a start, many other countries have their own systems of honours, though admittedly less bedecked with garters and ribbons. Even Americans and Germans (in their guilds and associations) hold local beanfeasts to honour people who are part of their gang. And the New Year list is rarely packed with very much in the form of repayment for services questionably rendered. Paul Hamlyn's elevation to the Lords is as appropriate a recognition as any other in today's list.

So, does the giving of these honours hurt anyone, apart from a handful of aspirants who feel they should not have been left out? Does it, in any real way, threaten our social fabric? Is it corrupting? Not at all. Is it an out-of-date, fusty practice in a supposedly modernising Britain? Most certainly. More pertinently, don't we really feel the whole thing is faintly daft? Without question. But then, many dafter things are done in the name of cultural continuity.