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Doing the honours in memory of Margo

Speaking at Margo MacDonald's memorial service, Elaine C Smith noted her remarkable friend had never been given any public honour.

Not, she added, that Margo was interested in being given the sort of title that traditionally comes with baubles - "though she did like a sparkling ring or a bracelet". The doughty politician's rewards, Smith said, came from the "respect, trust and affection she had and still has in people's hearts". Even so, were Scotland to have an awards system, such as the Legion d'Honneur, added Smith, Margo MacDonald would have been among the first who deserved to be anointed.

Smith's comments set me thinking. In an independent Scotland, would we want to have an honours system of our own? Since it seems the Queen will be head of state, there would presumably be no need to turn our back on the current system. Not, that is, unless we would like to distinguish our form of civic recognition from the tarnished and meretricious favours doled out by the palace.

Maybe, of course, we would think it more appropriate to stay true to the time-hallowed way of doing things in this country, where no-one is allowed to get above themselves, and those who do can be sure they will suffer in some way for it.

I have always resented the fact that the Queen and her advisers often pick those already highly regarded or privileged. With the exception of distinctions awarded for bravery, those who have medals pinned to their lapels and letters or titles added to their names have either simply being doing their (well-remunerated) job or are familiar to those on the assessing committees or in other positions of influence. Incidentally, if you suffer low blood pressure, take a look at the membership of these panels. As the paucity of Scots becomes apparent, your blood will begin to boil.

Since so many deserving individuals from the lower echelons are never recognised, the present system is virtually worthless. And yet, I can see that it would be a cheerless thing in a new Scotland to have no way of acknowledging those who have given distinguished service, or worked selflessly, or contributed something unique, who must not go unthanked.

Napoleon set up the Legion d'Honneur partly in the cynical belief soldiers needed more than mere praise to spur them on. It might not be the precise model we would want to choose, but it is more sophisticated than the royal rewards currently on offer. Scottish publisher John Calder has been given two Legions d'Honneur for his fearless and influential career, yet remains almost unknown in his home country.

So were iScotland to institute its own awards, who would get them, who would take that decision, and in what form would they come? For a start, nobody would be eligible simply for doing the state-funded job they're paid to do. Being head of a national art gallery or museum, for example, would not be sufficient reason, although if he or she had personally doused a fire that threatened a roomful of Old Masters, that principle might be reconsidered. Likewise, no civil servant or politician or church panjandrum would receive the accolade unless they had gone significantly beyond the bounds of their job remit, and at considerable personal cost. There are few better exemplars than Margo MacDonald.

The emphasis would have to be on exceptional commitment and endeavour, whether in medicine or the arts, sports or invention, environmental protection or community work. Just as there would be no automatic entitlement to being considered, so no realm of activity would be ineligible. Those who propose and assess the lists of potential candidates would be drawn from enlightened citizens in positions of responsibility and experience. And there would be only a token representative from the government, to rubber-stamp proceedings, so that the judging panel would be as devolved from state control as possible.

Finally, these awards would carry no title or letters or pecuniary advantage. They would create no hierarchy of the good and great, no stepladder to advancement, no top-tier peering down on the rest. Such recognition would rightly be a matter of public acclaim and personal pride, yet it is crucially important that it do nothing to set people apart from one another. That principle, indeed, would be a matter of national honour.

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