So the Australian Prime Minister says that knights and dames are ‘anachronistic’ and will no longer be part of the modern Australia.
One might applaud Malcolm Turnbull’s vision if it wasn’t such a cack-handed way of avoiding the Prince Philip problem. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut, a boomerang to stun a witchetty grub. Only as an expression of Turnbull’s proto-Republic does it make sense and even then I’m not so sure.
It’s the longevity of any honours system that gives honours their value. To argue otherwise is like saying that Stonehenge would be better broken up and sold off as B&Q rockeries. Being archaic isn’t the problem with the honours system. The problem is when the system tries to modernise. It ends up looking like Betty Davis as Baby Jane, all rouged whiteness and wrinkles.
If the system is demeaned in politician’s eyes, it’s the politicians who have made it that way. Here in the UK, knighthoods have become voguish geegaws given to political sycophants and the dregs of light entertainment. Remember the days when you’d wait for the press embargo to lift at midnight? The honours would be met with nods all around and expressions of ‘about time they got one’. Now they leak out days ahead; effluent polluting the watercourse until the entire nation groans and gurgles about some oafish berk the shape of James Corden gloating over an OBE. Across the board, people have lost sense of what honours mean. They have become indistinguishable from BAFTAs and, god help us, the National Television Awards, those end-of-year baubles given to the nation’s milk monitors and halfwits. Most Popular TV Judge? Most Popular Advert? How about best tattoo not based on ethnic source material?
It wouldn’t be so bad if so many honours didn’t carry real power. Whatever you think about the House of Lords blocking the government’s Tax Credit reform, the process looked bareknuckle ugly because of the grandees involved. Andrew Lloyd Webber has rightly has been singled out for descending into the Lords like some tone-deaf Phantom voting for a reform that would hit the lowest paid. Yet equally, where is the honour in a system that promotes political appointees with questionable achievements and a few with jailhouse tattoos? Where is the value in a second chamber full of knicker magnates, apparatchiks of porn empires, and ex-politicos known more for their moats than their motions?
If cynicism of many honours is well deserved, it’s depressing that professional qualifications are also devalued. Just this past month we’ve seen Professor Germaine Greer hammered by the press for explaining the difference between sex and gender; Professor Jonathan Bate being sniped for his biography of Ted Hughes, the best we’ll probably see for a generation; and Professor Richard Dawkins endure ridicule from some human-idiot hybrid dragged from the shallow end of Sarah Palin’s gene pool. Meanwhile, Professor Green is lauded for his TV series which might be excellent viewing but it shouldn’t justify the BBC accepting his non-existent chair at the University of Hiphop & Clichéd.
The problem is endemic. In a nation that seems to know the price of everything, the value of nothing, we put our trust in doltish morning TV quacks whose doctorates arrive in jiffy bags from overseas.
Yet that’s not to say we should scrap our honours system; no need to replace the KBE with some ‘Hall of Fame’ live from the O2. We simply need to stop indulging the famous and being mean and patronising towards the worthy. A footballer finally accepting that his legs have gone is not worthy of a gong. Recipients needn’t have tangoed on Strictly to earn their Baronetcy. Honours should not be given simply to make up the numbers but awarded to people that deserve our recognition for the real and significant contributions they’ve made to our country and its culture. It would be a start if we could award fewer and increase the value of those we do award.
Ultimately, the honours system should be the pride of any nation. Isn’t it about time we started to make it worthy of that pride?
David Waywell writes and draws at The Spine.