Archive for June 11, 2011

A Bridge Too Far

Posted in Education with tags , , , on June 11, 2011 by telescoper

My commitment to the education of the great unwashed knows no bounds. Tonight’s subjects are architecture and geography.

Not a lot of people know that the relatively unknown Sydney Harbour Bridge is in fact a cheap replica of a much more famous structure in a much more interesting location:

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Tyne Bridge

The Value of Honour

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on June 11, 2011 by telescoper

Big news this morning was the release of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for 2011 which, if you’re interested, you can download in full here. The awards that made the headlines were a knighthood for Bruce Forsyth and gongs for England cricket stars  Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. A smattering of academics (including an astrophysicist and a particle physicist) were also among those to get invitations to  Buckingham Palace in order to receive honours of various sorts from Her Majesty.

The honours system must appear extremely curious to people from outside the United Kingdom. It certainly seems so to me. On the one hand, I am glad that the government has a mechanism for recognising the exceptional contributions made to society by certain individuals. Musicians, writers, sportsmen, entertainers and the like generally receive handsome financial rewards, of course, but that’s no reason to begrudge a medal or two in recognition of the special place they occupy in our cultural life.  It’s  good to see scientists recognized too, although they tend not to get noticed so much by the press.

On the other hand, there are several things about the system that make me extremely uncomfortable. One is that the list of recipients  of certain categories of award is overwhelmingly dominated by career civil servants, for whom an “honour”  goes automatically with a given rank. If an honour is considered an entitlement in this way then it is no honour at all, and in fact devalues those awards that are  given on merit to people outside the Civil Service. Civil servants get paid for doing their job, so they should have no more expectation of an additional reward than anyone else.

Honours have relatively little monetary value on their own, of course so this is not question of financial corruption. An honour does, however, confer status and prestige on the recipient so what we have is a much more subtle form of perversion.

Worse still is the dishing out of gongs to political cronies, washed-up ministers, and various sorts of government hangers-on. An example of the latter is the knighthood awarded to Steve Smith, Chair of Universities UK, who stated, apparently without humorous intent,

Normally the UUK president gets a knighthood in the summer after they finish, so I was expecting it – in the sense that you ever expect these things – in July next year.

I read this as meaning

Usually the UUK president is rewarded for being a spineless government lackey after they’ve finished, but I’ve been such a brilliant spineless government lackey I’m getting my reward early.

Although the honours system has opened up a little bit over the last decade or so, to me it remains a sinister institution that attempts to legitimise the self-serving nature of its patronage by throwing the odd bone to individuals outside the establishment. I don’t intend any disrespect to the individuals who have earned their knighthoods, MBEs, OBEs, CBEs or whatnot. I just think they’re being rewarded with tainted currency.

And that’s even before you take into account the award of a knighthood to the loathsome homophobic spiv Brian Souter. Well, I mean. Does anyone really think it’s an honour to be in the same club as him? I find it deeply offensive that he could  have been considered an appropriate person to be on the list. If you feel the way I do, please sign the petition here.

There. I’ve said it. Bang goes my knighthood.