OPINION: A royal honour in name alone

PETER STANFORD, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

It's not often that we get the chance to pat Prince Philip on the back. But government papers, released last week by the Public Records Office in Kew, show that the old buffer has in his time had at least one good idea beyond marrying a desirable heiress. Back in 1966 he drew up a memo, rejected by Harold Wilson, suggesting that OBEs and MBEs should be scrapped and replaced by a new award.

His reasoning - that the Empire referred to in both gongs was anachronistic - is even more valid today when the last pink bits on the map are little more than rocks and coral reefs. Moreover, the whole honours system is so cheapened by its use to reward political favours that getting an award begins to seem more of an indictment than a blessing. When each new list is published, the names of those being honoured with OBEs and MBEs for their services to charity are dwarfed and debased by the cronies who make the headlines - backbench MPs with knighthoods for keeping quiet or party donors shuffled into the Lords for coughing up.

If I could adapt Prince Philip's plan slightly, I'd like to suggest that the pantomime of political honours be separated from those in the public and third sectors. Instead these selfless individuals should be celebrated on the Queen's birthday when they could receive specially set up awards.

I'm tempted to draw up my own memo to scrap the link between honours and charitable service. Like the word empire, the connection seems to hark back to outdated notions of vocation and amateurism. We won't pay you properly, or at all, but don't worry one day you might get to the meet the Queen. Yet there are many for whom that trip to Buckingham Palace still has a deeper value than straight compensation.

The day may well be coming when a professional, properly paid third sector, supported by volunteers acting out of conviction, doesn't need to be singled out with letters after names, but we are still in transition and that moment hasn't arrived.

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