A System of Dishonour

In the news this morning was the release of the New Year’s Honours List for 2020. The awards that made the headlines were various sports persons, musicians and other celebrities, as well as the odd ghastly politician.

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 and sportswomen, 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. I noticed for example, Ed Hawkins, who got his PhD at in Astronomy at Nottingham when I was there and is now Professor of Climate Science at the University of Reading, received an MBE.

On the other hand, there are several things about the hinours 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 Iain Duncan Smith, a thoroughly loathsome person responsible for introducing the cruel system of Universal Credit designed to make the UK sick and poor even sicker and poorer and which has undoubtedly led to real hardship and even death.

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 people like Iain Duncan Smith. 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.

There goes my knighthood.

2 Responses to “A System of Dishonour”

  1. Well argued! There is still the possibility of sirehood, sagehood, sainthood or wisdomhood awaiting you.

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “The honours system must appear extremely curious to people from outside the United Kingdom.”

    Other countries have similar systems, such as the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Cross of Merit) in Germany (which comes in various styles, depending on how appreciated the recipient is), though automatic honours for career civil servants are not part of it.

    John Lennon said that he was glad that he received an MBE since later he could give it back to make a protest.

    David Bowie was offered a knighthood, but declined.

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