Going, going, gongs?

Love it or hate it, the honours system survives and is copied by many - we'd be daft not to keep it, says Adrian Furnham

June 18, 2009

Twice a year we have a happy ritual - the Queen's Birthday Honours and the New Year Honours - resulting in various high-profile sports and entertainment figures being highlighted in the tabloids, usually with approval. There are also heart-warming stories of very ordinary people's heroism, dedication and selflessness being rewarded.

Academics get their fair share, too. A selection of vice-chancellors get knighted and many dedicated people in the groves of academe sport their honours with pride, although some, of course, refuse them. Universities use this for PR, and why not?

But increasingly there are calls for the immediate, total and complete abolition of the honours system, which is derided as promoting gross political patronage and perpetuating the class system. There is always a snipe at senior (and very dull) public servants getting a gong or bauble for "just doing their job". Why indeed does some administrator for an office of administrative affairs deserve a knighthood? Buggins' turn. It brings out the worst in the British.

But before abolition or even reform, consider the benefits of the system. If it is such a bad thing, why are there so many similar schemes around the world? Why did egalitarian, "classless" Australia and tall-poppy-pruning New Zealand start their own copycat systems, even while they were withdrawing from the imperial British system? Who wouldn't want to be Grand Knight Commander of the Wombat or Kiwi, or have the Order of Wagga Wagga or the Cloudy Bay Goblet bestowed on them? And why do the French and even the ever-so-admirable Scandinavians have a similar system?

The answer is simple. It is very, very cheap to run. A few ribbons and a few melted-down tin cans. An honour is an incredibly powerful inspiration. Companies donate and individuals raise huge sums of money for the prestige of a gong. Learned and professional societies rejoice in their members getting those awards and use them as measures of recognition and success. It is really good publicity for individuals and their organisations.

The honours system is not the only reason for altruism. It could be argued that it does not encourage altruism at all because it is more likely a cynical exchange of time and money for a very prestigious award. Indeed, PR companies have been known to be employed to "facilitate" raising the honours profile of an individual.

The system is cheap to run and it is inspirational. Both good things. And the gongs are graded from the famous Call Me God (CMG), to Kindly Call Me God (KCMG) to God Calls Me God (GCMG). We lost the BEM because that was really only for "other ranks", but there is a very clear grading. Give more, achieve more, get more. Cheap, motivational and equitable.

There have been great shocks to the system from which it has never fully recovered. David Lloyd George flooded the upper chamber with "peers at a price" in the early years of the 20th century. Harold Wilson sent shockwaves around the world when he honoured the Beatles with gongs. This opened the door to a very different class of recipient and no doubt prolonged the life of the system. But it's not a matter of bend and buckle so much as adapt and thrive.

Certainly it is sometimes difficult to see why one individual merits an honour and another does not. But that is true of most promotions at work. And the particular rank or level of gong awarded can also be a bit of a mystery.

Sure, it is an imperfect system, but it is one that has stood the test of time. It has and will see change. But to abolish it would be completely daft. Look how the Americans hunger for and are so impressed by it. Note those pathetic attempts to copy our system from having a Who's Who in central Idaho to every Professor being a Distinguished Professor. And note also why the Australians voted to keep the Queen. It was not that they thought the system ideal, but they could not think of an alternative.

The system has been and is being revised to be more open and transparent. So, seminar group, your question: "The honours system: cheap, inspirational, equitable or class-riddled, political patronage? Discuss."

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