Discredited honours?

THEY HAVE been around for as long as one can remember, and, over the past 50 years, successive British Governments have used them to keep alive the myth of a non-existent empire. Every year, hundreds of Britons and loyal non-Britons abroad are awarded nearly half-a-dozen different types of honours in the name of the British empire under a system that is as anachronistic as it is shrouded in secrecy and, therefore, vulnerable to allegations of favouritism and cronyism.

While these are announced on behalf of the Queen and generally reflect the preferences of the government of the day, no one knows who chooses the nominees and on what basis. A review two years ago found that that the whole system is run by a "predominantly white male" cabal in Whitehall, and it is all so hush-hush that its deliberations are believed to be immune even to the 30-year-rule under which most confidential government papers come into the public domain after 30 years.

But it is in the nature of secrets that one day even the best-kept secret is blown. All it needs is someone disgruntled or courageous enough to blow the whistle — as indeed someone did recently by leaking some very embarrassing details of how the system works. Documents leaked to The Sunday Times reveal a shadowy world in which whims and fancy play not an inconsiderable role in deciding who should be given a knighthood and who should be fobbed off with just an Order of the British Empire (OBE) or made a humble Member of the British Empire (MBE).

It seems that politically-inspired intelligence dossiers are not alone prone to a little "sexing up", but even the honours list is often spiced up to enliven the proceedings. According to the leaked minutes, Britain's top tennis player, Tim Henman, was to be included in the coming New Year's honours simply to "add interest" to the list while a distinguished scientist, Colin Blakemore, was dropped because of fears that his support for experiment on animals might provoke a backlash from the animal rights lobby which includes Prince Charles.

Lost in the fog of colonial hangover, many in Britain's former colonial outposts, including India, regard even a lowly MBE as a lifetime achievement but in Britain itself the honours system is seen to have become so discredited that some 300 of the country's most famous people have turned down the awards in recent years. The list of "refuseniks'' reads like a Who's Who of Britain's literary, cultural and scientific elite. It includes such internationally distinguished figures as Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Doris Lessing, Francis Bacon, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, Roald Dahl, Philip Larkin and Vanessa Redgrave. In his angrier days, V.S. Naipaul turned down a CBE but could not resist when a knighthood was offered to him some years later. Like him, several people refused an award the first time around because they felt they deserved a bigger title and went on to accept when the "biggie" came along, but in most cases the refusal was a matter of principle, starting with the very idea of being honoured in the name of an empire which ceased to exist more than half a century ago.

Novelist J.G. Ballard, who refused a CBE (Commander of the British Empire), called it a "huge pantomime" and a "preposterous charade". "Thousands of medals are given out in the name of a non-existent empire. It makes us look a laughing stock and encourages deference to the crown," he said echoing playwright Michael Frayn who turned down a CBE and knighthood. He said there was "something slightly ludicrous about the system" which, according to the black poet, Benjamin Zephaniah (another "refusenik"), reminded him of "slavery" and "thousands of years of brutality".

There are some who baulk at the idea of "bowing and scraping" to the Queen and would rather do without an honorific. But the biggest problem with the system, according to its critics, is that it encourages snobbery and seeks to create an artificial elite. A report last year described it as "too political, too elitist, too uneven and too weighted to military endeavour". Despite occasional attempts to make the honours more egalitarian, they remain concentrated in a few hands — mostly civil servants and military brass. There have been allegations that successive governments, including the present one, have used honours to oblige friends and benefactors; and rather than recognise real achievements and contributions by ordinary people the whole enterprise has degenerated into a means of political patronage.

After a nationwide uproar, triggered by The Sunday Times revelations, the Government has promised a thorough review of the system and it looks that finally the ghost of British empire might be laid to rest. And cynics are hoping that America with its imperial ambitions does not end up borrowing some very bad British habits.

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