Honours system: have a gong and leave your principles at home

Independent on Sunday, 14 June 2015

It’s a world where traditional ‘British’ values – snobbery, deference and minute degrees of distinction – exist in defiance of modern principles of equality and social justice

It’s that time of year when “ordinary” people are supposed to express their everlasting gratitude for being given titles that have no place outside a pantomime. Part of the deal is fielding questions from smarmy broadcasters who think nothing of tossing out questions like this one: “Did you ever imagine, when you were growing up on a council estate, that you would one day be Dame This or Sir That?”

The correct response is self-deprecating laughter and a joke about whether it comes with land and a castle (the comedian Lenny Henry did this when news of his knighthood was leaked last week). It’s also correct form to say you are “chuffed” – a nod to your chirpy working-class background – or that you are really accepting it for your Mum. What you mustn’t suggest, even if you secretly believe it, is that you’ve worked hard all your life and deserve to be recognised by the state.

The class system, in other words, is alive and kicking. It’s a world where traditional “British” values – snobbery, deference and minute degrees of distinction – exist in defiance of modern principles of equality and social justice. The system is flexible to a degree (women did well among this year’s “lower” awards) but manages to preserve the privileges of white men. Thirty-three men got knighthoods, compared with seven new “dames”.

The list prompted the usual, well-founded complaints about the use of honours to recognise political donors. But the most cogent objection is the way it subtly co-opts individuals, persuading them to endorse a structure  which appear at odds with their values. This year, two feminist campaigners, Caroline Criado-Perez and Laura Bates, have been honoured for services to equality, diversity and promotion of gender equality. One has become an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – words I find hard to write without bursting out laughing – and the other accepted the British Empire Medal.

Like any card-carrying liberal, I can live with a bit of cognitive dissonance. But the honours system is so entwined with colonial history and privilege – the posher you are, the bigger the bauble – that it can’t be reconciled with egalitarian principles. It’s based on a fantasy of the UK as a god-fearing country that rules the world (the OBE motto is “for God and the Empire”).

While decent individuals go along with this nonsense – only 2 per cent refuse – nothing will change. And that’s dispiriting, because people shouldn’t have to compromise their principles to have their achievements recognised. The same is true of those who hold its major offices; I’m still reeling from the discovery that some Labour ministers (including Andy Burnham) apparently felt the need to abase themselves in correspondence with Prince Charles.

Our laws and treaties express an admirable commitment to equality and social justice. Let’s get off our knees and make it mean something.

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