Honours Even

A couple of years ago I was listening to the radio in my car when I heard an interview with the bloke who at that time was in charge of reforming the honours system (I can’t remember who he was). One thing he mentioned stuck in my mind; that the system should be reformed because (and I am paraphrasing here) “just being good at you job should not be a reason to be awarded an honour”.

Quite right too, I thought; but my elation was short lived. It soon became clear that the subject of this attack was the “ordinary people”; the dinner ladies and cleaners who receive modest honours in return for years of dedicated and unsung service. He wasn’t at all bothered about the sportsmen and actors who are annually awarded gongs for merely being successful in their chosen professions; it seemed that he thought this should continue.

The latest reform has just been announced, and in a move aiming to “improve transparency and accountability in the honours system” the new members of the eight committees that decide upon the awarding of honours have been announced; these committees include some famous names and non-civil servants for the first time.

Fair enough as far as it goes, but it is clear from the number of people involved on these committees that we can expect plenty more honours to be doled out twice yearly like toffees at an Everton home game. When compared to, say, the French system and their Legion d’honneur, the British system seems altogether sillier and less prestigious (although it is quite possible that I am praising the French system out of ignorance). I am not saying that there should be no system of honours at all; just that to receive an award should be for some sort of exceptional achievement, something significant or out of the ordinary. Just having been in a pop group for a long time shouldn’t mean you qualify.

It is interesting to look at some of the people who will have a say in where the next set of honours go. The most striking is Sir Bobby Robson, a man who can (but probably doesn’t) consider himself very lucky to have been knighted in the first place. He may be a lovely chap – and has had a fairly decent career – but nothing he has achieved suggests to me that he deserves what should be such a prestigious title.

Particularly when you talk about stars of sport or the arts, there already seems to be plenty of specific ways that success can be rewarded – the Booker Prize, Academy Awards, Olympic Medals – that I don’t see why on top of that you can get a knighthood for just being famous and hanging around for a bit. That is not to say however that such people should never get honours; winning the 1966 World Cup, for example, seems the sort of exceptional event that would be deserving of a knighthood; but only for the manager, or some truly remarkable player, not just the bloke who only played in the final because a better player was injured and who subsequently slutched a hat trick.

Ultimately then, I agree that you need to be more than just good at your job in order to be awarded an honour; but that goes for the rich and famous as much as for the rest of us. You shouldn’t need eight mammoth committees to decide how to allocate each year’s many awards; if only truly remarkable and admirable achievements were rewarded then fewer honours would be issued, and the whole system would gain more respect.