Leading Article: Honours with a modest popular touch

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The Independent Online
TODAY's New Year's Honours list represents a small step in the right direction. Its innovation is to introduce a new category of recipients nominated by members of the public. The Prime Minister's aim was to include more people with a record of unobtrusive and selfless service to their fellow citizens. It was a popular idea: the names of more than 7,500 individuals were put forward. But only 70 of them - less than 1 per cent - eventually found themselves among the 900-odd people honoured.

Many were precisely the type of voluntary worker already featuring in the lengthy MBE section of previous lists. But Mr Major's small revolution has introduced a welcome democratic element into the biannual exercise; and, however arbitrarily, it brings to official attention those whose labours would otherwise pass unnoticed.

That said, the list continues to be excessively long. Its senior rungs still include as many as ever civil servants and diplomats who have reached certain grades of seniority; the usual clutch of unremarkable but long-serving Tory MPs; and numerous businessmen who lack neither financial rewards nor esteem. The rest, culled as normal from such fields as show business, the arts and sport, will elicit the usual range of reactions, according to taste. A good honours list will arouse more feelings of quiet delight at recognition for under-rewarded talent than groans at official encouragement for some self-publicist with a sideline in worthiness.

It was a nice touch, this time around, to award an OBE to Sue Slipman, a campaigner for single-parent families, some of whom came under heavy attack at this year's Tory party conference; and to give the MBE to the BBC's outstanding Moscow correspondent, Bridget Kendall - shortly going to Washington - who has sometimes seemed under-appreciated within her own profession.

Since there is no objective yardstick for achievement in non-hierarchical fields, there is bound to be a high element of arbitrariness in all honours lists. The best hope is that awards should go to those whose performance seems to go beyond the call of duty and to have been inadequately rewarded in terms of status and money. In that respect, today's list is a modest improvement on its predecessors.