It’s New Year and I’m feeling queasy. No, it’s not a hangover. It’s the New Year Honours. The Queen’s New Year Honours.
I’ve always thought they were, at best, pathetic. At worst, they are wholly pernicious.
I can’t imagine the feelings of people who support our honours system. Did they throw the mince pies in the air and shout “Yes!” when they read that Jessica is now a CBE? Did they feel gutted that Andy only received an OBE? I suspect most people don’t give a hoot either way. They probably give more attention to the festive TV schedule than the list of the newly honoured.
Even so, I wonder how anyone can just feel indifferent to our repugnant honours system. For a start, take the titles. Who on earth would want to be a Member of, be Ordered by or Command any part of the British Empire? What is the British Empire anyway these days? Gibraltar, the Falklands and some atolls in the Pacific?
Ah, but what about the imperial past, the centuries of tradition represented by these titles? Exactly – centuries of domination and exploitation. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah turned down an OBE nearly a decade ago because "it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised". It’s hard to understand how anyone of Afro-Caribbean, Asian or African heritage could bear to tag such letters on to his or her name.
The Scots were the English’s chief lieutenants in despoiling the globe but you’d think those of us who would now like to go our own, independent way would keep their distance from the baubles of the English Establishment. If you accepted that knighthood before you wised up, Sean, now’s the time to give it back. Look at Mr. Fred the Shred. Giving up the Sir bit doesn’t hurt at all. You even get to keep all your money, however you made it.
Of course, every year there are half-hearted suggestions of reform. The latest is to change the meaning of the E in MBE etc. from ‘Empire’ to ‘Excellence’. A Member of British Excellence? Let’s just giggle and move on. I will even refrain from cheap jokes about possible re-brands for the Order of the Garter.
Such tinkering won’t do. Total abolition is what’s required. The current system serves mainly to shore up the English Establishment. Although all attention on publication day is on the sports personalities and the stars of stage and screen, the vast majority of the top honours go to politicians, senior civil servants and high-ranking military officers. Captains of industry and finance do well too – especially those who contribute to party coffers.
It’s absurd of course that all these people are honoured simply for doing their job – for which they are very well-remunerated. They don’t even have to do that job especially well. One of the new knights in the latest list is Hector Sants, the former head of the Financial Services Authority, widely criticised for failing to see the banking crash coming.
It’s hard to fathom too why sports champions and gold medal winners need these Establishment honours. Isn’t being number one in your sport enough? Shouldn’t honours external to the sport go to those who win nothing but try hard?
Bradley Wiggins is famously crabby. He appeared refreshingly to be someone who put total devotion to his sport above being media or sponsor-friendly. Now he is just a tamed Sir Grumps.
And why a knighthood for being the manager of the richest football club in the UK? Alex Ferguson is famous for the psychological warfare he wages on the rest of the football world. What a great advantage it must be, for example, when mere commoner, plebeian referees have to respond to one of his tirades by addressing him as ‘Sir Alex’. Do they bow before they open their mouths?
As for the ‘socialists’ like the newly Damed Margaret Beckett, well….words fail me. Does it mean acceptance, your ladyship, that you and your egalitarian ideals were wrong all along and the hierarchical Establishment right?
The only cheer in the Honours announcements is the unofficial whisper about those honourable enough to have said ‘No, thank you.’ The refuseniks’ roll of honour includes the likes of Roald Dahl, Robert Graves, Henry Moore and (five times) L.S.Lowry.
This time round, it’s three cheers for Danny Boyle. We may never know all his reasons for refusing a knighthood. But at least he had the good sense to realise that acceptance of an Establishment honour would have considerably undermined the legacy of his Olympic tribute to democratic, welfare state Britain. Personal recognition for his artistic achievement is enough. Unlike the likes of Ennis, Farah, Murray and Beckett, he requires nothing more and certainly not Establishment approbation.
The current honours system was unfit for the 20th century, let alone the present one. It stinks of snobbery, privilege and old boys’ networks.
It does not honour those who accept its tainted titles and medals. It diminishes them.