Leading Article: Word of dishonour

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The Independent Online
WHEN John Major allowed it to be known in May last year that 'reforms' to the Honours system were on the way, the reports indicated that his intentions were 'fiercely meritocratic'. The changes that emerged last week suggest that the Prime Minister has curious ideas about both ferocity and meritocracy.

The objections to the British Honours system are that it is riddled by class distinction, that it submerges real achievement in mediocrity and that it is a vehicle for political patronage. Mr Major has addressed none of these problems. He has abolished the British Empire Medal, traditionally awarded to the working classes, without touching the rest of the elaborate superstructure. All this does is to convince those who presently hold the honour that it was always worthless. He has announced that knighthoods will no longer be awarded automatically to civil servants who reach a particular rank. All this does is to strengthen the system of political patronage. Mr Major, indeed, let the cat out of the bag, by making an exception for High Court judges lest anybody think the Government would influence their legal judgments.

Mr Major, being one of nature's bureaucrats, thinks the whole thing can be made more acceptable by handing out forms that invite public nominations. If Downing Street is deluged with fatuous proposals, Mr Major has only himself to blame. The present system should be replaced by a single Order of Merit for outstanding (non-political) achievement. And control should be removed from Downing Street and entrusted to some non-party or all-party body such as the Privy Council.