Twice a year I am horribly conflicted: January and June – when the Queen’s Birthday and New Year’s Honours lists are published.
People I love and admire get offered honours. I understand the pull and don’t think any less of them for accepting; but I find it hard to celebrate, because I have deep reservations about the current honours system.
My brother has an MBE that he got for leading a team that created a wraparound soft-body-vehicle armour, which saved thousands of the lives and limbs of our servicemen and women. I’m so proud of him. But what I didn’t know when he got it was that his position was a barrier to a higher honour – despite the immense reach and impact of his work.
Setting aside for now the whole colonial whiff of Empire, it worries me that the honours system seems rigged to reflect and perpetuate existing inequalities and power structures. The honours are ranked, knighthoods and damehoods being higher and the British Empire Medal the lowest – so low in the hierarchy that it’s not given by the Queen but by the lord lieutenant of your county.
The ranking of the honour tends to reflect the “ranking” of society. Although there are, of course, exceptions, the already powerful get most of the top honours, with all the access and pull that comes with them – the less advantaged and less powerful get a pat on the head. Generals, professors and chief executives don’t typically get BEMs. Hospital porters, teaching assistants and Barry who does the bins round Bulmershe don’t get CBEs or knighthoods.
It’s also who you know. To get a higher honour it helps to have mates in high places mobilising their mates in high places to flood the honours committee with letters of praise. People from less-connected parts of society are incredibly unlikely to have that sort of confident and organised support.
Further, although ostensibly an independent committee makes the decisions, nominations are, in effect, vetted by government departments before they get anywhere near the committees. It’s unclear what would topple you from the list.
Data is patchy, but we do know that of the 2021 cohort, women represented 50 per cent of total awards but only 39 per cent got a CBE or above. Only 17.3 per cent come from a lower socio-economic background. Of the top honours (knights, CBEs etc) 74 per cent had titles similar to chief executive, professor, or chair. And this pattern is reflected over time and regionally.
I’m not anti-honours per se. I honestly think that citizens being recognised is a wonderful thing – but this system, for me, is so compromised that even talk of reform feels like just tinkering with an already horribly flawed system.
How about we scrap the whole thing and start again? No ranked awards – only one or two for everyone? Take the government out of it altogether and have an entirely independent body drawn from across society who make the decisions? Then no one accepting an honour is perpetuating inequalities. And
I can celebrate my friends’ achievements without feeling like a hypocrite.
Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change