Leading Article: Banish all the dishonourable honours

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Under the Tories the stables got into an unpleasant state. It is going to take Labour some time to muck them out. As an introduction to its work in cleansing British public life, the abandonment of honours to MPs for political service is welcome. But there is much more to be done, to modernise and rationalise the effulgent growth in recent years of decorations, gongs, places, preferments and petits douceurs. And the place to start is the honours system.

Let's first say clearly there is a strong case for identifying individuals who have conspicuously served the public and giving them some title or label as a sign of general thanks. But more important than the process by which the honour is delivered are the criteria of merit. Most recipients of the "lesser" honours, at present the Members and Commanders of the British Empire, are ordinary people who have been identified by neighbours or local authorities as distinctly worthy. Those are honourable honours. People work hard running Scout troops. Some slave on behalf of voluntary organisations. Others, paid public servants, stand out in the local mind as performers above and beyond the call of duty. Britain needs to have a scheme by which - preferably by means of local nomination - such people can be distinguished. Pay is not the only mark of success, or should not be. These alternative rewards can strengthen the bonds of civil society.

But such a scheme has no need of the pseudo-medieval flummery which surrounds British honour-giving. As long as Britain remains a monarchy, the agent for dispensing the gong will be the Queen and her successors. But a clear distinction has to be made between the monarch's personal awards and honours of state. In the former category are those royal honours created by the Stuarts and Hanoverians for their people of the bedchambers, horse-groomers, maids-in-waiting and pastry-cooks, plus the decorations such as the Order of Merit which are in the sovereign's personal gift. Historically speaking, the dividing line is around 1900. After that date the "royal" orders were created for political purposes: it is no coincidence that the great boom in orders of chivalry occurred when the corrupt David Lloyd George was prime minister.

Queen Elizabeth is not to be blamed for the profligacy of her grandfather in creating imperial orders, sashes and decorations. In an ideal world the Order of the British Empire would be replaced by something more fitting to a 21st century secular culture with no imperial aspirations. But if the orders are kept, the important thing is to ensure that the recipients deserve the honour. Here is where Labour should direct its attention. The habit has grown up that certain kinds of public official, specifically civil servants, expect to get certain kinds of honour. A deputy secretary in Whitehall (grade II) expects to get a Companionship of Honour after a certain number of years. Knighthoods come to permanent secretaries like manna from heaven, just as promotions in the order of St Michael and St George come to diplomats as they move embassies. It is ridiculous.

It also subverts the principle on which all organisations, let alone public service organisations should operate - all staff, so long as they are properly treated and decently paid, should give of their best as a matter of course. Once it might have been true that honours were a substitute for adequate payment for civil servants. Nowadays Whitehall staff are reasonably paid.

Honours that come automatically from tenure of a place or position, that go with the job, whether to under-secretaries, chairs of quangos or egregiously loyal backbench Tory MPs, are sometimes a mild dishonour. Why? Because they can encourage timidity and creepy conformity in a society which needs neither. How many civil servants (or vice chancellors for that matter) have "kept their noses clean", not "rocked the boat" in order not to offend and so be struck off the list of nominees for honour?

Labour needs to do two things. One is to carry forward the process of reform begun, to his credit, by John Major. The public has been let in and its role in nominations and selections should be expanded. Why shouldn't people be asked about suitable candidates? Meanwhile the process of decision in which names are tossed between civil servants and politicians should be scrutinised. The criteria applied by the honours-givers should be clear and public. They also need to be elastic, since those who finally decide need some discretion. Performing artists and sports people pose problems. It would be invidious to exclude all actors and soccer players from inclusion even though to give a gong to all full-backs who do charitable work would be to exhaust the stock of medals pretty quickly.

The second is to review the honours themselves. Just as too many people get honours simply because of the job they hold, so there are also too many honours, a great dusty hierarchy that progresses upwards in degrees so complex that it takes a Roy Strong to find them interesting. Just what does a Knight Commander-hood mean on the eve of the 21st century? A government which has promised to purge the upper chamber of parliament of the hereditary principle should have no compunction about phasing out titles. There will always be - we hope - company directors, entrepreneurs, scientists, public servants, even MPs, who shine in the public's eye, whose merit is undeniable, whose contribution to the life and work of the country is outstanding. Some form of government recognition is appropriate. But let it be a modern and modest honour, a source of quiet pride, and not the tinkling anachronism of sirs and dames.