The Value of Honour

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.

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34 Responses to “The Value of Honour”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    One additional objection that I have to the United Kingdom state honours system is that the titles of the honours usually make reference to the British Empire. I consider imperialism to be a form of racism.

    I shall never be offered one of the United Kingdom state honours. However, years ago, I thought that if offered one I would turn it down on the grounds that the honours mostly make reference to empire. It was subsequently a pleasure to learn that the poet Benjamin Zephaniah did refuse one of the honours on this basis.

  2. Dr. JAH Says:

    Surely many job titles in academia are also steeped in tradtion, honour and prestige ? In any other business a Professor , say, would be called someting like ‘senior manager’, or at best ‘director’. It’s also not unknown for the Prof. title to stick around well after the person has long left the role, jealosly guarded.

    Bang goes the chance of that chair at the University of East Cheam…
    … I’ll stick to the one in my kitchen.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t really get your point. Doesn’t what you’re saying apply also to “Dr”?
      It’s true people do tend to keep the title “Professor” after they’ve retired, as do officers in the armed forces, but I don’t see the parallel with the honours system.

      I’m not sure academia is as steeped in tradition, honour and prestige anyway.

      • Mark McCaughrean Says:

        Barely on the topic, I admit, but isn’t there a fundamental difference between Professor and Doctor, at least when the latter is associated with holding a PhD, rather than a job related to human health?

        That is, a doctorate is a qualification that (in principle) you earn and thus the title that goes with it should last for life, independent of the job you hold or whether you’ve retired.

        On the other hand, in the modern-day UK at least, being a professor is (just) a job title and thus (in principle) the title should be dropped once one is no longer engaged in a post that comes with it. Then again, being granted a visiting or emeritus professorship is always an option …

        As for Steve Smith being knighted for serving his term as UUK president, unfortunately I’m in no position to comment on that specifically, as he’s the VC of my university. But as an avowed republican, I certainly do have an opinion on the general topic, one which I was almost in a position to act upon when the plane I was on into Heathrow a couple of weeks ago skimmed the rooftops of Windsor Castle.

      • As the American tourist said, nice castle, but why did you build it so close to the airport?

  3. Winter Lightning Says:

    Not one but two particle physicists: Jenny Thomas (former chair of STFC science board) and Brian Cox, both OBEs for services to science.

    No doubt Brian Cox also counts as an astrophysicist.

    Truly a day of celebration for all subjects of the Empire.

    • telescoper Says:

      Brian Cox was made an OBE in last year’s Birthday Honours List, so the particle physicist count remains at one for this year.

      Brian Cox has never done any research in astrophysics nor has he published a single paper in that area.

      • Winter Lightning Says:

        Indeed he was; my mistake for following a BBC related news link early this morning. I also omitted “\irony” for the astrophysicist comment.

        I only checked (DATE .NE. “April 1”) and not the year.

        Bruce Forsyths’s award was long overdue.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Not only am I against the teaching of homosexuality in schools, I am against the teaching of heterosexuality. Sex education is a matter for the home. Not the State.

    And while I’m being provocative, there are an awful lot of professors of non-subjects on this list, compared to physicists, historians, mathematicians, classicists etc…

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      I think schools have an extremely important educational role to play not just about sex itself, but also in education about citizenship and respect for others, particularly in teaching about the dangers of racism and homophobia. Section 28 was never really about sex education, it was a deliberate attempt to stir up prejudice.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Well, here’s something we disagree about. Schools should teach children facts, like F=ma and the rainfall in France and the language in Germany and the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire and the binomial theorem. Schools should not attempt to socially engineer children in the way that the government and those who have its ear wish. That privilege is for those who care for the child out of school, and I support their right to teach their children whatever they like, however agreeable or disagreeable I find their views. Anything else, in a land where education is compulsory (which I believe is why it is commonly held in contempt), is a slippery slope to totalitarianism.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think a school that simply taught facts would be a complete waste of time. School should be about developing a child’s intelligence and creativity by challenging them to think about difficult things. Some of those things have clear-cut answers, some don’t. It would be wrong for schools to teach that some political views are right and some are wrong, but iI believe it’s essential to teach them about politics and what different beliefs there are.

        At my school we had only the minimum of sex education. It was strictly the birds and the bees. I didn’t want to have sex with either of those, however, so I had to find out the rest for myself.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        “I think a school that simply taught facts would be a complete waste of time. School should be about developing a child’s intelligence and creativity by challenging them to think about difficult things.”

        Indeed – difficult things like F=ma and the binomial theorem and how and why the pattern of rainfall in France correlates with its geography and why the postulated causes of the decline of the Roman empire led to its collapse. Those are, surely, facts – and no waste of time.

        Perhaps we should revert to topic B, ie the honours list, about which I entirely agree with you.

      • I agree that schools should not be allowed to socially engineer children, but why should parents be allowed to do so? Surely you don’t believe that a parent owns a child in the same way as they may own a pet that they train. The child will grow up to have all the prejudices that the parents gave them, unless they are shown an alternative. I think it is fair for the school to introduce the children to different perspectives on moral issues, and allow them to decide for themselves (since you can’t force parents to do that).

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Why should parents be allowed to socially engineer their children? I question the question – I don’t think that parents ever socially engineer their children; rather, they do their best to bring them up to have certain beliefs, probably matching their own. Parents have the right to do that without interference from the State because they conceive the child and provide it with food, warmth, shelter and – hopefully the root of all of these – love. That love extends, when a child grows up, to freedom to disagree – hopefully without acrimony. Unlike parents, the State cannot love.

      • Ok, perhaps “socially engineer” was the wrong phrase. But you’re telling me that because parents pay for the children’s food and give them love they are allowed to indoctrinate their children in their own beliefs? I entirely disagree. Just because they pay for food and give them love, I do not think that gives them the right to act as if they owned the children. Children have the right to be exposed not only to facts, but, as Prof. Coles says, different political theories and moral systems, so that they may choose for themselves where they are aligned.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        mmaluff: Please consider the consequences of your position, namely that the State has the power to say to anybody whose politics it disagrees with, “Your political views make you unfit to bring up your own children because you are likely to indoctrinate them, so we are taking your children off you.” Whether those views are noxious or not is not the point; I simply do not want to live in a society like that. Do you?

      • telescoper Says:

        That doesn’t seem to me to be a consequence of mmaluff’s position at all! Nor is it of mine.

        Nobody has mentioned taking children away from parents who have extreme political views, merely that schools should offer education about politics. And the state should (and does) have the right to remove children from parents who neglect or abuse them. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a society where that wasn’t the case.

        As a matter of fact, parents do have the right to educate their own children at home. If you don’t believe me, read the government’s own website:

        http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/parents/schoolslearninganddevelopment/choosingaschool/dg_4016124

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        You (mmaluff) wrote: “because parents pay for the children’s food and give them love they are allowed to indoctrinate their children in their own beliefs? I entirely disagree”. That means, necessarily, you believe that although parents pay for the children’s food and give them love they should *not* be allowed to indoctrinate their children in their own beliefs. The only way to prevent that is to give the State the power to remove children from parents whose views the State finds objectionable. Nothing to do with neglect or abuse. So I still think this would be a consequence of your view.

        You might turn a blind eye to the removal of children from parents whose views you (and probably I) find repulsive, but there is a bigger point at stake, for it could then happen to your children tomorrow, over some other difference between you and the State.

      • telescoper Says:

        Anton,

        By the way, I think “topic B” is really “topic A”….!

        Peter

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        A OK Peter!

      • I think you misunderstand me. When I say parents should not be allowed to indoctrinate their children, I do not mean that parents should not be allowed to tell their children whatever they want. I believe in free speech, and everyone, not only their parents, is allowed to tell anyone whatever they want. What I’m saying is children have the right to be presented alternatives to their parents’ beliefs.

        I’m not advocating that schools tell children “your parents are stupid, this is what you should believe”. I’m especially not advocating that children should be taken away from parents with ridiculous beliefs. All I’m saying is that when children are only presented with one side of the coin by their parents, schools should help them understand the other.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        @mmaluff: I’m glad that you (presumably) do not wish the State to have the right to remove children from parents whose views are obnoxious to the State.

        Children will bump spontaneously into differing views, eg in the playground “My dad says X” “Well MY dad says Z”. When they grow up they will have the freedom to take a measured view of alternatives and accept or reject what their parents told them. But there is no way of knowing whether a child will get qa different view at school from at home except by the State keeping notes on the partents’ beliefs and on what, at school, the child says the parents say. That would be creepy.

      • “Children will bump spontaneously into differing views, eg in the playground “My dad says X” “Well MY dad says Z”. “

        Yes, assuming the children frequent a playground where children of different persuasion are. One of the motivations of many homeschooling parents (many if not most do so for religious reasons) is not their fear that the academic standards of the normal schools are lacking (though this might be the case sometimes, though whether their own academic standards are better is a different question), but rather that their children might come into contact with people who have different beliefs. If we allow such fundamentalist Christian parents the right to create a parallel society with little contact to the outside world, then we have to allow that to every religiously motivated group or we have to enact laws favouring one religion over another. I don’t like either alternative, which is why I am against parallel societies. Any belief which is endangered only because children have the opportunity to hear other points of view can’t be very convincing.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip: I agree with you that any belief which is endangered only because children have the opportunity to hear other points of view can’t be very convincing. However the arguments for homeschooling grow ever stronger as the State seeks to use compulsory education – once a good thing – to mould oor chidlren into what It thinks they should be. Getting 7-year-olds and younger to practice putting condoms on bananas, and lessons in ‘citizenship’ (a concept that was congenial to Stalin, Hitler and Mao) are two of the things I have in mind as wrong – and this at a time when the curriculum is already overloaded.

      • My view is that education is supposed to prepare children for life and I think that it is the responsibility of the state to provide it, since otherwise one has the better-education-for-the-rich problem. As to 7-year-olds putting condoms on bananas, in general sex is part of life (or should be) and there are certainly parents who don’t think that any sort of sex education is appropriate. As always, the devil is in the details and perhaps not every single case is completely appropriate. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as saying that sex education has no place in the classroom. In any case, today one can’t really bring the argument that children could be exposed to sex too early through sex-education in school; whatever one’s views on it, the fact is that pornography is becoming more and more mainstream and I doubt there are many children who haven’t seen a bit of it on a smartphone at the playground. Some people might see this as a need for more sex education, to counter-act impressions received from pornography etc. (Often the argument is that pornography is unrealistic, although that certainly isn’t always the case; in any case, there is a huge range of subject matter. My impression is not one of unrealism in the first instance as it would be with, say, a work of art incorporating supernatural elements, but of course your mileage may vary.)

        The evidence is quite clear that there is an anticorrelation between good sex education and unwanted pregnancies (usually of rather young women). If one’s goal is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and things possible associated with them (abortions, unloved children, ostracisation of those involved), then it is obvious that one should be in favour of sex education. On the other hand, if one’s goal is to reduce the amount of (perhaps premarital) sex, then this isn’t a desirable goal, and unwanted pregnancies can be seen as collateral damage or a warning which might move some people to abstinence.

        I’m not familiar with the education of children in the UK. Is there a general fear that there is too much state indoctrination in UK schools?

        To lighten the tone, how about the all-time best yo mama joke?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip: The best preparation for life is to be born to and brought up by two parents who are committed to each other and remain joyfully so. Where that is, unhappily, not the case, the school cannot replace it. The school’s job concerns the head, not the heart.

        “The evidence is quite clear that there is an anticorrelation between good sex education and unwanted pregnancies.” That depends on what is ‘good’ sex education, so I can’t say I agree or disagree – but it is very clear that there used to be little sex education and now there is a lot, and there used to be few unwanted pregnancies and now there are many: suggesting the opposite of your claim. In fact the very notion of ‘sex education’ implies that sex is difficult, whereas the teenage pregnancy rate suggests that it is too easy nowadays.

      • “The best preparation for life is to be born to and brought up by two parents who are committed to each other and remain joyfully so. Where that is, unhappily, not the case, the school cannot replace it. “

        Granting your premise, one has to ask the question if, in the event of a failure, nothing is better than some attempt, if not to replace it, then at least to compensate for the loss.

        “The school’s job concerns the head, not the heart.”

        My view is that a society does need some sort of basic common understanding with regard to ethics etc and thus I don’t see why it shouldn’t be taught, or at least mentioned, in schools.

        “but it is very clear that there used to be little sex education and now there is a lot, and there used to be few unwanted pregnancies and now there are many: suggesting the opposite of your claim. “

        In an experiment, all variables except the one of interest should be as equal as possible. Hence, comparing societies with more or less sex education today makes more sense than comparing more now with less in the past. This comparison does support my claim; the figures are not capable of any sort of misinterpretation. Keep in mind that in the old days, puberty occurred later than today and the typical age for marrying was younger, so there was less opportunity for “illegitimate” children. (Whether all children born in wedlock were wanted is another question.)

        “In fact the very notion of ‘sex education’ implies that sex is difficult, whereas the teenage pregnancy rate suggests that it is too easy nowadays.”

        Of course, sex education doesn’t involve the basic “how to do it”, but rather discusses methods of contraception, dispels myths (“one can’t get pregnant the first time”) etc.

  5. I think declining a gong carries more status and kudos than accepting one, David Bowie shot up in my estimation when I read that he had turned down both a CBE and a knighthood.

  6. As John Lennon noted, it’s a good idea to accept an MBE since it gives one the opportunity to make a statement by giving it back. (IIRC, when he gave his back, other people who had previously given theirs back in protest wanted to have them again.)

  7. […] I’m happy to see recognition given to such people, as I did last year on this occasion I can’t resist stating my objections to the honours system for the record. One is that the […]

  8. […] I’m of course more than happy to see recognition given to such people, as I did  a couple of years ago I can’t resist stating my objections to the honours system again. One is that the list of […]

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