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Should We Honour the 'Quiet Bat-People'?

08/08/2016 12:59

The history of nepotism probably began fifteen seconds after the first man gained a position of power. It's a deeply uncomfortable word, personifying both the best and worst of humanity. It captures a deep seated desire to improve the lot of those we hold dearest, which manifests itself in taking advantage of position, power and privilege.

So the only surprise from David Cameron's parting honours list should have been how unsurprising it was. Given the political and media firestorm which this announcement has sparked, you'd have expected something akin to the renaissance Papacy, an institution which really knew how to do nepotism.

The College of Cardinals was littered with the nephews and "nephews" of previous popes, newly appointed countrymen and laymen. Benefices and titles were little more than bargaining chips for the next election. Pope Innocent VIII appointed a 13 year old Giovanni de Medici (later Pope Leo X) as a cardinal. His successor Alexander VI, better known as the notorious Rodrigo Borgia (made a Cardinal by his uncle), aroused even more scorn when his openly acknowledged son Cesare was given, and then relieved of a red hat as it suited him.

By contrast, 21st century British politics look remarkably tame. But amidst a mood of anti-establishment fervour, the Honours list has become the latest sacrificial lamb for the much deeper seated political malaise afflicting country.

Compared to any comparable honours list, a smorgasbord of several prominent cabinet ministers, including Defence and Foreign Secretaries who just happened to have campaigned a certain way in the European Union referendum, large political donors and advisers critical to the Cameroon political machine don't really seem that unusual. Outliers such as Samantha Cameron's adviser (or stylist) deserve the ridicule they've received.

But scrapping the current system, as some elements of the Labour Party have suggested, would be a tremendous disservice to the formal recognition of the achievements, efforts and service bestowed on their recipients. Meanwhile, as other strands of Labour continue to their efforts to recreate The Thick of It as a live action stage show, the proposals for a revised honours system nominated by the public could well turn out to most closely resemble Nicola Murray's 4th Sector Pathfinders, immortalised as 'Quiet bat-people'. More disquietingly, it could turn the system entirely into a popularity contest, guaranteeing that those out of the public eye are stripped of this opportunity.

My view on this is undeniably personal. Nearly five years ago, my mother received an MBE in the New Year's Honours list for her actions while serving as Deputy High Commissioner in Malta.

Discovering the Foreign Office press release announcing the award brought back floods of memories. As civil war in Libya loomed in 2011, she worked 20-21 hour days for over a week, and 16+ hour days for many months, coordinating the emergency evacuation and its aftermath. Her actions helped to evacuate over five hundred British citizens and more than 1000 people overall, to Malta and beyond. As I sat revising the logistical operations to combat the Berlin blockade during that February, she was managing a relief operation of her very own, from negotiations with the Maltese authorities, to standing on the dock at 4am to meet the first evacuees rescued by HMS Cumberland - the first of many such landings.

She has never flaunted the three letters that she could put after her name. But those three letters mean a great deal to her. She and so many other recipients deserve this small dose of recognition for their efforts.

There is always room for reform in politics, to make it fairer, more open, opportunities more equal. But overthrowing the entire honours system on the basis of one list would be a very deep shame.

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