Full disclaimer: I am a republican, and have little interest in the Royal Family. I bristle at the very idea of people bowing down to an unelected head of state to accept a medal, but I accept that the monarchy debate has been done to death. On the other hand, the Honours system itself warrants a closer examination if we are to achieve a more transparent, modernised and equal Britain.
Let us start off with the fundamentals. There is the obvious issue with the titles of the honours, specifically the explicit reference to the British Empire. Numerous worthy nominees for honours have documented their feelings after receiving the acceptance invitation in the post. Perhaps most notably, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah said “It reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.” Similarly, Howard Gayle, the first Black football player to play for Liverpool, rejected his MBE on the grounds that his “ancestors would be turning in their graves after how empire and colonialism had enslaved them”. Not all are as resolute as Zephaniah and Gayle, however. Others have expressed more mixed emotions; after all, there is the appreciation of a public acknowledgement of their contributions to society. Of course, not all ethnic minority recipients share the same opinions on this, but it would be remiss of us to ignore the disproportionate effect this has on those who have heritage in former colonial nations.
Further to all this, what Empire? The Falklands and Gibraltar? Obviously the name is a relic from a century ago, but it seems increasingly inapplicable, never mind inappropriate, to modern Britain. I doubt most people, beyond ardent traditionalists, would be bothered if the ‘E’ was changed to, say, Excellence, as was advocated by the Labour MP Lisa Nandy in recent months.
So what about those who have the reassurance of public success? When an entertainer does get honoured, it strikes me as a strange reward for someone who already has masses of public adoration, but may not have necessarily put selfless time and effort back into the community. Looking at the list of famous names who have declined honours – David Bowie, Alan Bennett, Stephen Hawking, Nigella Lawson – it reads like a dream dinner party guest list. When it comes to artists and creatives in particular, I am always suspicious of those who choose to accept an honour from the Queen. I believe that art ought to be free to challenge the status quo, to be subversive and certainly not to be beholden to the establishment.
By comparison, the gongs are so often handed out to political cronies and suspect characters. Let’s have a look at some figures who have been awarded knighthoods: Sir Philip Green (a generally awful man), Sir Philip May (the knighthood given for…being married to a prime minister?), Sir Lynton Crosby (Tory election strategist, obvious cronyism), Sir Jimmy Savile (I mean, dear God). This is a selective list to prove my point, but these are the names that stick in the public consciousness, thus cheapening the honour when it is given to less dubious recipients and doing nothing to counter the widespread belief that the honours system is one which can be bought into by the rich and well connected.
Of course, I am not here to downplay the work which is recognised by ordinary members of the public – people who do tireless work for society are not cause for my criticism here. So, accepting that there are valid acts and work which would be worthy of recognition, why not ensure that there is a rigorous and independent body to judge the recipients, rather than politicians and civil servants? As it stands the Honours system is not fit for purpose, and its integrity is diminished with every new list of names published.