Honours and Admissions

Time for a quick comment on the Queen Birthday Honours List for 2012 which, if you’re interested, you can download in full here.

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.

First of all, therefore, let me congratulate space scientist, and occasional commenter on this blog, Professor Monica Grady on her award of a CBE. I also couldn’t resist commenting on the award of a knighthood to the Chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council

..Professor Michael Sterling, who has turned round the Science and Technology Facilities Council

according to the official government announcement; the emphasis is mine. The phrase “turned around” is an interestingly frank way of putting it, and a refreshing admission from a very high level  that STFC was in disarray under its previous management.

Although 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 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 sleaze. One wonders how many names listed in the current roll of honours are there because of political donations, for example.

I wouldn’t accept an honour myself, but that’s easy to say because I’m sure I’ll never be nominated for one. However, I imagine that even people like me who are against the whole system are probably still tempted to accept such awards when offered, as they generate good publicity for one’s field, institution and colleagues. Fortunately, having less than a cat in hell’s chance of being nominated, I’m never going to be tempted in that way!

11 Responses to “Honours and Admissions”

  1. Roger Butler Says:

    You haven’t mentioned that Dave Powell, secretary of Cardiff Astronomical Society since it’s inception in 1975was awarded an MBE. This is richly deserved after nearly 4 decades of dedication in promoting astronomy to the community. CAS now has over 450 members and is almost definitively the largest amateur astronomical society in the UK.

    • telescoper Says:

      That’s because I didn’t know! Congratulations to him and to CAS.

      I think Cambridge might be your closest competitor in terms of
      size of Astronomy Society…

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Speaking of Cambridge, and in analogy with Peter’s complaint about civil servants routinely getting Orders of the British Empire etc (how can one say that with a straight face in 2012?), I wish to complain about the University’s practice of giving honorary degrees to its central adminstrators who work in the Old Schools building. There is no good reason to do this. Administrators are there to serve the people with real degrees. There is a bad reason, unfortunately, which is that they turn out to vote whenever a contentious issue is put to a vote, and they vote to ensure that the boat doesn’t get rocked – even though it sometimes needs rocking.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Congratulations to Monica Grady and Dave Powell for their awards, and to Michael Sterling (though I’ve never met him).

    Like Peter, I shall never be offered a British state honour, and am contented about that. However, I strongly hope that were I offered one, I would politely turn down the offer on the basis that most of the honours make reference to empire. The concept of empire is outdated; empires were usually based on conquest, oppression and racism.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      And conquest, oppression and racism are outdated? I think that the generic concept of empire has a future, although not necessarily a happy one.

      My favourite book on the British Empire is the history of it by Lawrence James. It is neither teleologically triumphalist like the Victorians, nor mindlessly negative like the Marxist analysis of many 60s writers. I prefer the unabridged version to Niall Ferguson’s recent history. James writes out of the tension between (1) an empire that was won and maintained by force or its threat, yet which (2) brought peace to many areas of the world that had been feuding for centuries and abolished such terrors as thuggee and suttee. He ends with a quote lauding the British Empire by Nelson Mandela.

      Speaking of Ferguson, his Reith Lectures start tomorrow and look interesting:


      I sometimes feel that Ferguson likes to take on the big themes of history almost to prove himself, but he wrote a fine history of the financial system a few years ago and is very well qualified for this topic.

      • I’ve also read both histories (James’ and Ferguson’s) and, on balance, prefer James. I like my history presented in a dry and factual way. Ferguson’s book can only really be appreciated once James’ (or something similar) has been read whereas James’ history works much better as a standalone piece.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Imperialism has had varied effects across the world, and the British Empire was not as entirely negative in all its effects as many others. However, imperialism is always based on one community thinking itself, rightly or wrongly, superior to another, and using this to dominate or suppress the other.

      I much prefer a factual approach to history. Ferguson often seems to push an agenda a bit too strongly for my taste.

      Of course, the continuation of the term “empire” in many British state honours is an historical oddity. Virtually everyone who is offered and accepts such an honour would be as critical of empires or imperialism as I am.

  3. Monica Grady Says:

    Thanks for your good wishes. I felt really odd when I got the letter – ‘why me?’ was the first thing that sprang to mind, given that I don’t do anything that many other colleagues don’t do just as well, if not better. Next consideration was ‘well, they’ve offered it to me, should I accept?’ I did think about declining – what is this British Empire that I am now, apparently, a Commander in? But, as you saw, I did accept. Mainly because it gives publicity to space science, and how that can draw young people in to STEM subjects, and also because it may help to underline that the UK space industry is vibrant, and a provider of jobs. This, eventually, trickles down to funding in physics, etc.

    It is also providing a lot of entertainment at work – and will give me an excuse to buy a hat.

  4. Roger Butler Says:

    In response to Monica’s “Why me?”‘ because certain of your colleagues and friends put your name forward with suitable citations, usually submitted 2 years previously. So despite the Royal aspect which many reject, as well as reference to a British Empire that no longer exists, this quirky tradition is one way that ordinary people can get those they see around them in their own communities state recognition for their services. As Monica says, it also draws attention to their area of expertise and the work of colleagues.
    Of course this aspect of the awards is completely undermined by the automatic conferring of awards to career civil servants who are only doing what they are paid to do !

  5. Indeed there remain many anachronisms in the British honours system. To clear up one particular point, the fact that “certain categories of award is overwhelmingly dominated by career civil servants” is because that category, Order of the Bath, is *only* for civil servants (and senior military offices). As there was no category for ‘regular’ people, they came up with a new one: Order of the British Empire.

    So if you are going to be awarded a gong for public service as a civil servant you are not eligible for a gong from the Order of the British Empire. You can argue that perhaps there shouldn’t be a separate category anymore and that the two should be merged, and that some gongs are less or more well deserved than others. However, if we think some people (artists, sportsmen/women, musicians, academics!) are worthy of awards for being great at what they do we shouldn’t besmirch civil servants for receiving them just because of a historical oddity. Civil servants are like academics in that they could earn more in the private section, but choose the public section because it is more interesting. And they have to deal daily with politicians…

    On another note, many areas like academia and the charity sector have been woefully under-represented historically.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Perhaps changes in society should be reflected by changing the Order of the Bath to the Order of the Shower?

      Regarding charities, the situation might change for a sinister reason…

      Click to access Sock%20Puppets.pdf

      27,000 charities now get at least 75 percent of their income from the government. This is a new phenomenon and turns once-independent charities into political pressure groups which give the illusion of popular support for certain policies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: