Twice a year my blood pressure rises to dangerous levels. Today was one of those days – the announcements of the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. The other occasion is the New Year’s Honours List. For those of you not members of the British Commonwealth or a citizen of the United Kingdom and associated overseas territories, let me explain. Twice a year, Her Majesty’s Government chooses to honour people who have in the words of the Honours System web site made achievements in public life and committed themselves to serving and helping Britain. They will also “usually have made life better for other people or be outstanding at what they do”. There is a range of honours available, from Life Peerages (Barons and Baronesses), through varying orders of Knighthood (or Damehood) down to the lowly British Empire Medal. In principle I have no objection to people being honoured in recognition for their good deeds and/or achievements. What I do object to is the way the lists are dominated, despite claims of major reforms over the last twenty years or so, by the rich and the famous. Well-known actors, sportsmen and women, acclaimed novelists, politicians, multimillionaires and musicians to name just a few, collect Knighthoods, are appointed Commanders of the British Empire (CBE) or Officers of the British Empire (OBE). If you peruse the list in detail you will also find the odd Head Teacher, eminent professors and members of the caring professions in the top section of the honours. You will also find a large number of government servants who receive honours for having done their jobs blemish-free until their retirement. In the list of appointments to Members of the British Empire (MBE) and recipients of the British Empire Medal (BEM) you will however, find a higher proportion of the more mundane members of society.
It seems singularly unjust to me, that people who have made their mark, been recognised by receiving honours from their own industry, and live a very different life-style from the rest of the population, should then have yet more honours bestowed upon them basically for just being good at their day jobs. In the real world, doing community service is much harder. My 85-year-old mother-in-law for example, ran a Brownie pack for more than 40 years, has been involved in community service her whole life, in fact still does meals on wheels for what she calls the old folks, but has never asked for or received or even expected national recognition. Yes she has done all this whilst raising a family and working full-time. Who deserves an honour more, the multi-millionaire who takes a few seconds to write a cheque (albeit with several zeros) for charity or the hard-working members of society who does a full-time job and then in the evenings or weekends, gives up that most precious of commodities – time, to help others? I know who I would honour for charitable services and it would not be the former. If of course, the head of a multi-national corporation came home after a long day in the office and then went out after supper and helped at the local soup kitchen or ran a youth club or similar activity, then yes good on them and the honour would be well-deserved.
Of course the system is run by the establishment so the chances of changing it are slim to none. There is however, at least in my opinion, a way in which this state of affairs could be rectified. On the occasion of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, I wrote to her suggesting that to celebrate that landmark anniversary that she should institute a new parallel honours system for those truly deserving national recognition. I suggested that it could be called the Elizabethan Order, with corresponding ranks to the current honours system, but recognising those people who have normal occupations, but give up their valuable personal time to help others. It is easy to give money, but time is another matter. As you may have gathered, she did not act on my suggestion. This year, the sixtieth since her coronation, would also be an opportune occasion to establish a new honours system, but I will not be holding my breath.
I have a great respect for those local community activists who sacrifice their personal lives and if they are recognised, usually end up with the lower awards when they are manifestly deserving of great honours. Truly in the words of Chaucer we should be recognising these “verray, parfit, gentil knyghts (and ladies)”
It has often puzzled me that certain of my left-wing leaning colleagues and friends from the ecological community, who have been honoured by receiving personal chairs or elected as Fellows of learned societies, should then accept what I perceive as debased honours. Their response was that it was important that the general public should have their attention drawn to the existence of their discipline and that by accepting a knighthood or a CBE this was helping the cause of ecology/entomology/whatever by raising its profile. I am not convinced and if perchance someone were to nominate me for an honour I am pretty certain I would turn it down. Apart from my own jaundiced opinion of the system, my wife, who incidentally is a tireless worker for the local community (PTA, Community Centre, Youth Club, Community Band, Brass for Africa Charity Trustee, etcetera, etcetera) is a great opponent of the system and would almost certainly divorce me if I were tempted to accept.