Leading Article: Everyone march, two, three, four

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The Independent Online
Sound the bugle for the Last Post. Collect the badges and pips for souvenirs. If proposals in yesterday's Green Paper on the armed forces are implemented, several famous ranks and titles will disappear. The result will, apparently, be "cost-effective" new model armed forces.

It is true that there are rather a lot of ranks at the moment. Each of the services contains 12 for officers and seven for non-officers. So it is suggested that a number of amalgamations take place to reduce these to eight and four respectively. Admirals of the fleet will merge with plain admirals, rears will disappear into vice, air commodores and group captains will lose their distinctness one from the other.

True to form the services wish in each case to amalgamate into the higher rank (all generals becoming field marshals, for instance), while the Treasury, mindful of the pay bill, prefers the opposite. Whichever way it goes, there will be sadness: major-generals losing out to the very models of modern lieutenant-generals, or all corporals losing their lances.

But the armed forces are not the only over-stratified part of our society. Viewers of Joanna Trollope's The Choir will be impressed by the vast number of ranks in the Anglican Church, revealed through her meticulous research. One cathedral close contains a bishop, a dean, an archdeacon and vast numbers of canons - prebendary, residentiary and dromedary. The recent BBC spat has drawn attention to the corporation's managing directors, chiefs, controllers, heads, editors, producers and barristers. Our aristocrats descend in order of precedence from dukes through earls, marquesses, viscounts right down to barons.

Objectors to reform say that this plethora of ranks is actually good for people. The holding of a nice title, they argue, will often compensate for low pay, or a boring, pointless job which enjoys low esteem (such as, say, National Heritage Secretary).

But the current fashion for "delayering" means organisations lose unnecessary tiers of management and become "flatter". And this, of course, is a good thing. Horizontal divisions, which are essentially bureaucratic and limiting, will be replaced by vertical divisions, within which the task or "project" will be all-important and to which all will contribute.

To achieve radical delayering throughout Britain, we suggest that all ranks in society be abolished and replaced by three "grades". Let us call them "Upper", "Middle" and (in deference to tradition), "Nether". Archbishops, generals, admirals, chief executives, regulators, judges, pop stars, models and royals will all be Uppers. Editors, doctors, peers, commanders and farmers will be entitled to Middle rank. Nethers will consist of the rest of us, from police constables to clerical assistants. Then we will have a delayered society to go with all these new, flat institutions!