Ruth Wishart: Honour only when it’s due

SCOTLAND could find a better, fairer system by which it rewards those who serve the country, writes Ruth Wishart

Three thousand personal letters are dispatched every year, a third of them at the behest of the current Prime Minister.

Some of the recipients will be more surprised than others. Since John Major’s attempt to democratise the British honours system in 1993, more lollipop ladies and school jannies find themselves offered a modest gong for services rendered.

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Some a very modest gong, indeed, since David Cameron decided to reinstate the BEM – British Empire Medal – mainly for community service. The big society medal, presumably.

There will be little sense of shock in other households, certainly not those harbouring senior civil servants who will not only expect the requisite “reward” for going to work in the morning, but will be well schooled at which grade their level of entitlement should be pitched.

There is the CMG version of a knight or damehood, for which the internal shorthand is Call me God. Not, at any price, to be confused with GCMG, a rather better class of sir and dame, characterised as God Calls Me God.

There is a sense in which these particular gongs, plus those bestowed on long-serving Westminster backbench MPs, are essentially carriage clock awards; public evidence that you managed to pop up at your appropriate place of work for the requisite number of years. Or, in the case of the foreign and commonwealth office, served in an appropriately sexy embassy.

The MoD honours, unsurprisingly, are particularly keen on observing rank. Only the highest awards for gallantry seem to escape the service’s inherent snobbery; the most notorious example of which was Captain John Ridgeway’s MBE for his joint exploit in rowing the Atlantic with Sergeant Chay Blyth, given a BEM. Though as it’s now Sir Chay Blyth CBE, I imagine there is not a lot of sleep lost at Blyth towers.

Underpinning all of this is an honours system in which rank and privilege lie deeply entrenched. A number are in the Queen’s private gift, including the Orders of Garter and Thistle, Order of Merit and Royal Victorian Order. Although, oddly, it’s often easier to identify the net contribution to society of that select band than in some of the other hundreds and thousands who emerge through the honours committees and Number 10.

Her Majesty is also quite keen on keeping some stuff in the family; last week Charles, Prince of the Realm and heir to the throne found himself also a Field Marshall of the Army, Admiral of the Fleet and Marshall of the Royal Air Force. We must fervently hope any new crisis does not pose a simultaneous threat to each branch of the services.

The salient question, it seems to me, is not whether a country should honour those who serve it with distinction in any capacity, but how that system should be constructed, and whether or not it can be stripped of inappropriate patronage, naked lobbying, and the opportunity to buy into it with political donations. Cash for honours is hardly a modern phenomenon, but it remains a persistent one.

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And so ubiquitous is the celebrity culture that our rock stars routinely join distinguished actors as knights of the realm, while those “off the telly” who contributed to the jubilee-a-thon were gonged this time as well.

Equally, it’s surely absurd that the British honours still proclaim pretendy empire status when the overseas writ now only runs in the much disputed Falklands and a handful of island tax havens.

Eight years ago the all-party Public Administration Select committee came up with a rather elegant solution to replace Empire with Excellence, thus neatly keeping the same initials without the same imperial baggage attached. It wasn’t quite brave enough to remove the inherent rankings however, though it would be a Companion of Excellence rather than the rather militaristic Commander.

More importantly it suggested that a modern democracy should have no future truck with Sirs and Ladies. It noted that when Australia was reviewing its honours system, the government found widespread support “for a structure which reduces the incidence of a reward hierarchy duplicating occupational or socio-economic hierarchies”.

Many other countries have managed to reform and enhance their honours system by democratising it. New Zealand and Canada opted for simplicity. The US kept its top medal, but abandoned titles when it became independent. General de Gaulle, a byword for fierce patriotism, nevertheless ditched 16 different rankings post war in favour of the respected Legion d’Honneur.

In the UK the Companion of Honour came into being because many people found the idea of suddenly acquiring a status-altering prefix profoundly uncomfortable. And some people like Simon Jenkins, former editor of The Times and now a columnist for several publications, accept a knighthood but choose not to be labelled Sir anything.

His award also raised the question of whether journalists should accept honours at all, given that they are put on earth to monitor politicians rather than take baubles from them. Jon Snow is one of the most outspoken refuseniks, noting that “the higher the honour, the more open it is to corruption – certainly we have instances where peerages have been secured by party donation”.

(I too am in that happy band of refuseniks, having declined an honour some years ago, partly through a conviction that journalists are inappropriate recipients, but mainly because you cannot inveigh against what you regard as a rotten system, then cheerfully join the club. Yet you do feel conflicted in the sense that you have many friends who have done worthwhile things in their lives and for their country and whom you know have taken enormous pleasure in that contribution being recognised.)

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Peerages, not strictly part of the honours system, are nevertheless much sought after by those who, all visual evidence to the contrary, think that ermine-trimmed red cloaks are an aesthetically pleasing addition to their wardrobes. New peers too are subject to a rare medical condition known as the self-administered lobotomy. This is characterised by a person who once robustly criticised the House of Lords and all its works suddenly having a Damascene conversion…usually in one of the rather grander dining rooms.

This will be explained by their encountering all manner of wisdom and professional expertise within its portals and intoning that such pearls could not be accessed in any other fashion. Less easily explained are the sub-wise species who come to the red benches because their party needed space on the green variety.

Scotland has a real opportunity to construct its own system of reward for service to the common weal; a Legion d’Honneur Ecossais, if you like, which could be simply named the Scottish Medal or similar. Like all these processes, the problematical bit is who decides, and on what basis? A good start would be to divorce it from politics regardless of who is in power. And we might do worse than adopt the principles the Westminster select committee suggests should inform the structure and its application: excellence, integrity, transparency, dignity, clarity and fairness.

To which qualities I would add service when nominations come to be scrutinised. As an incoming president of the United States once memorably observed: “Ask not what your country can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your country.”