Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: These shameless honours dishonour us all

If the deserving refused because they want no part in this charade, we could get a revolution going

Monday 19 June 2006 00:00 BST

My temper has been hitting 90 degrees this week. The country has been hanging out its badges of dishonour, and no, this time I don't mean the omnipresent English flag. First came the auction where jewels and other bric-a-brac of a royally wasted life were sold by Princess Margaret's son to the dim-witted who believe you can buy sparkle and class. With a mere £15m raised, the impecunious lad will be able to settle the bill and hopefully, if he is careful, take his family for a fortnight to Butlins.

Then news broke that Peter Phillips, a BNP member was standing as a candidate to become president of Riba, the Royal Institute of British Architects, no less. It was a shock to realise this ideologically racist party is infiltrating respectable establishment institutions. Come Friday and Saturday, we are once again invited joyously to mark the Queen's 80th birthday, which is really on the 21st of April, when we had weeks of adulation and feasting for the loyally unctuous.

Finally, on Saturday the latest Honours list was released and yet again the commendable - toiling toilet cleaners, brave firefighters, devoted nurses, committed children's rights activists, - were lined up with the dubious, who always get the superior medals, for the baubles are embedded in a strict caste order.

An OBE goes to Lulu Guinness (not the daughter of a miner, you can safely assume) described by her admirers as "the queen of English handbags". There are even funnier ones: for services to golf, and bowls, but this is no laughing matter. The horrible Michael Winner was offered an OBE - he declined, perhaps because he wasn't offered a knighthood.

Philip Green, the billionaire who owns Bhs, Burton and Topshop becomes a knight, as do others good at accumulating vast fortunes for themselves. Green serves the country well by not creating extra work for hard-pressed tax collectors. He lives part of the year in Monaco and uses his wife to spread the burden of his heavy £1.2bn salary.

Riba's Peter Phillips will surely get an MBE, at least, for bravery against PC. A lady in waiting to Princess Michael of Kent, receives a Victorian Order, the fourth-highest honour in the country, a handout to palace lackeys. Several political and financial backers of political parties are given medals, as are diplomats and senior civil servants, a routine perk for holding privileged position. There are no whistleblowers on the list, as far as I can tell, nor any vindicated opponents of our recent foreign policies, or investigators of political scandals, of which we have far too many. The audit of national excellence is sinking further and further into disrepute; our politicised Honours system is beyond repair.

Now you know my embarrassing story. I was stupid once and allowed myself to accept an MBE, partly to please my mum, who was always afraid that my big mouth would get us deported from here, as we were from Uganda. Then the poet Benjamin Zephaniah shamed me live on Channel 4 news, just as the Iraq war was building up and my republicanism was solidifying. I returned the lovely object and have had to put up with scorn ever since, some deserved.

But I now speak with the zeal of a convert. The Honours system sucks and we should start again, devise a fair and independent new method to annually acclaim exceptional citizens for their contribution to the nation, not to overweening political parties or the semi-skilled, dysfunctional Windsors. Under the new scheme, John Lidstone would be my No 1 nominee because nobody has done more than him to expose the bent and base processes which work unseen to produce the lists.

I met him when we were both asked to give evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee. The upholders of the edifice were abysmal - the worst being Brenda Dean, once a Trade Unionist who understood class, I thought. Lidstone, who looks like a suave diplomat, was devastating, providing facts and a critique to kill any complacency.

Ever since 1917, he said Honours have been used as currency in a dodgy marketplace, where bargains are struck between "eager vainglorious buyers and willing sellers" Lloyd George sold baronetcies, knighthoods and OBE's, netting in a fortune for his party and himself. Wilson and Callaghan were reprehensibly corrupt. Heath was, by comparison, an honest broker who was careful with his favours. Thatcher, then Major, rewarded anyone, including those who donated enough cash to the Tory cause. Blair has further debased the selection procedures. The PASC produced a worthy report and effective recommendations, most of which have been ignored by the Government, of course.

Let me say one thing clearly, hundreds of people who are honoured merit absolutely the respect they have been given. For working-class heroes, and awardees from excluded groups, it marks their victory over circumstance. Nobody has the right to deny them pride. But because many others have not earned the recognition they have been given, the medals appear worthless.

Now, if the deserving were to decline the insignia because they want no part in this charade, we could get a minor revolution going. But the powerful will never let that happen and the powerless will never give up their day in the palace. And so the venal system carries on.


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