It was a small but symbolic move for Australia's new prime minister to drop knighthoods and dames from his country's honours system over the weekend. Malcolm Turnbull, a lifelong republican, put it simply enough: "Knights and dames are titles that are really anachronistic, out of date, not appropriate, in 2015". What is true for Australia is true to Britain. Yet in the UK these archaic and silly titles continue to be awarded, gifted to senior police officers, civil servants, sacked government ministers and celebrities alike.
For Britain the case for scrapping these honours is all the more urgent and compelling, for they aren't simply an archaic form of recognition but a powerful mode of patronage. The British honours system has been so corrupted that a less honourable system would be hard to devise.
During the last parliament the House of Commons Public Administration Committee investigated the honours system. The same complaints kept cropping up from those giving evidence: there is a widespread perception of honours being bought; the highest honours go to people simply doing their jobs; the system favours the rich and well connected; the imperial nomenclature isn't just outdated but to many it is deeply offensive.
An honours system is good in theory - and in theory such recognition would be awarded to those who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Rather than favouring the 'great and the good' honours should be reserved for the genuinely good and great among the nation's citizenry. The current system is instead steeped in eighteenth century notions of status and hierarchy. An 'ordinary' person who puts in twenty years of voluntary service looking after vulnerable children will get an MBE, while a police officer who reaches a certain rank will be knighted, not for exceptional service but for doing their job.
The more pernicious aspect of the system is the awarding honours to politicians and donors. A donor will be awarded ostensibly for some other philanthropic generosity, yet there is a strong correlation between philanthropists who also donate to political parties and the awarding of honours.
Even if we take the philanthropy excuse at face value, why do we award a billionaire who gives away a million and not someone on the living wage who makes a greater personal sacrifice to donate £50 or £100? The values of the honours system are the values of the wealthy and well connected culture of Westminster, not the values of ordinary people who work hard every day with little recognition or reward.
The honours system relies on euphemism to sugar coat what is an unpalatable feast of rewarding favours and cosying up to celebrity. The evidence is in the citations that come with the awards, statements void of any real meaning: 'for services to' sport, music or politics and so on. In other words a gong for doing a job for which the person has personally profited and been recognised many times over.
The knighting of celebrities and sports people is a fig leaf, part of a strategy to deflect attention from what is essentially a grubby system of patronage. Political honours are little short of a disgrace. In 2014 David Cameron was accused of abusing the honours system after knighting a number of ministers who were sacked in a wide ranging re-shuffle. Eric Pickles too received a gong when he was dumped after the election in May. This is a simple but effective way in which a prime minister can use a national honours system to sooth the pain and secure the loyalty of ministers whose careers have been cut short.
We need an honours system, but it needs radical reform. A good start would be scrapping the titles, replacing them with grades of The Order of British Excellence (or similar). This would get rid of the imperial baggage which offends so many. An honours system should be unifying, not divisive, so if even one person cannot accept an award because their principles cause them to recoil from any association with imperial titles those titles should change.
Perhaps more importantly the language of knights and royal orders serves as a line of defence for this grubby system. The purpose and means by which honours are granted is opaque and given an air of nobility, disguising the very political and more secular reality. Suggestions for reform are rebuffed by some quarters as an attack on the monarchy rather than an attack on political abuse. A new set of titles would make clear their purpose, make harder the awarding of the undeserving or political friends and would liberate the debate about more far reaching structural reform.
That wider reform needs to see the wholesale replacement of the current system with one that is completely independent of royalty and government, an honours commission that is answerable to a cross-party committee of MPs. Parliament would confer the honours but the commission would determine the recipients, so honour would be restored and given in the name of the people, by the people's representatives.Suggest a correction