London 2012, a reshuffle and the honours system

By Jill Segger
September 10, 2012

'Honour' is both an abstract noun and a verb. These characteristics have become somewhat confused as sacked government ministers are rewarded and Olympic and Paralympic athletes feted for the achievements which have delighted and inspired so many over the last few weeks.

David Cameron bypassed the normal procedures and scrutiny requirements last week to announce knighthoods for five ministers sacked in his reshuffle. (Women were overlooked completely). These men have presumably done their jobs competently according to the requirements of their party. They have been well paid, provided with generous expenses and their parliamentary careers will have opened the doors to a variety of lucrative directorships. Whether or not they have been 'honourable' is a matter for their consciences.

A spokesperson for David Cameron said: "The Prime Minister believes that political service is an important form of public service." A great many people who work in low paid public service jobs also provide an important service, but without any of the compensations on offer to MPs. Their reward is unlikely to be anything other than a satisfaction in doing their jobs with stoic integrity.

The archaic and ludicrous nomenclature of honours appeals to the privileged who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Companions of Honour, Baths and Thistles do not have much meaning for the millions who are not students of chivalry. We long ago ceased to have an Empire in which recipients are appointed Members or Commanders. Knights were once individuals who had to meet certain standards of personal courage and integrity.

All these awards now come as standard issue, graded according to rank and status. David Cameron has reintroduced the British Empire Medal – the lowest echelon of reward known as the 'working class gong' which is awarded to military NCOs and civilians 'below management or professional level.' Awards are given in the military and civil service according to rank. The British establishment cannot escape its obsession with class, even when supposedly rewarding remarkable service.

The wave of euphoria which has followed London 2012 may perhaps offer a way out of this sclerotic system. There is considerable popular demand for all the medal winners to be honoured. It could well be argued that an Olympic or Paralympic medal is an honour which needs no accessorising. But to find a way of marking the once-in-a-lifetime event of a home Olympics which would honour all who took part, including the Gamesmakers who have met with universal admiration for their work, would have real meaning.

This unique event could be distinguished by a unique award which would genuinely recognise honourable behaviour. A Citizens' Medal, given for virtue rather than status and celebrating service which is not undertaken with an eye to pecuniary advantage, might be too radical for David Cameron, but it is surely overdue for consideration.

© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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