A Tradition Fit For A Modern Purpose
The custom of honouring deserving individuals is universal. Historically, almost all cultures and civilisations have developed a means by which exceptional contribution and achievement can be acknowledged – it is part of human nature.
Today, with the exception of Switzerland, every state in the western world has instituted some system for recognising worthy individuals. In recent decades, nations that opted to abolish or reduce the number of their national honours, often motivated by a well-meaning but misguided notion of egalitarianism, have found that this decision has left them unsatisfied as a society and disadvantaged – both nationally and internationally.
The result, invariably, has been the reinstitution of pre-existing honours or the creation of new ones. In 2012, for example, Ireland instituted a Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad which will be conferred for “sustained and distinguished service to Ireland” in one of several sectors of society.
The United Kingdom is fortunate to possess one of the world’s most respected and finely crafted honours systems. The antiquity of some of our honours imbues the entire system with a degree of prestige that is hard to match. The continuity and tradition our honours represent, directly linking the recipients of today with the great heroes of decades and centuries past, are clearly appreciated not only at home but also abroad. Following the overthrow of their authoritarian regimes, many subjugated nations, such as the former communist states of Europe, have been quick to revive their historic national orders. They appreciate the power that honours possess as symbols of sovereignty and national identity. We are very lucky to have been able to retain our various historic honours – rather than hinder, this heritage enhances our system.
But let us not dwell on the past. Despite its antiquity, the UK honours system is neither antiquated nor backward looking. Over the decades, full-scale reviews and essential reforms, most importantly within the last few years, have ensured that our honours system remains relevant and fit for its 21st century purpose.
The honours system of today is far more independent and transparent than even a decade ago. A quiet revolution has occurred! Each of the various subcommittees tasked with reviewing nominations for honours in specific fields now has a majority of members who are independent from government and the civil service; and each committee is also chaired by an independent member. Public outreach programmes to inform, educate and invite nominations have helped to raise awareness of the honours system; and this has increased the public’s favourable attitude towards honours and their willingness to nominate individuals in their community (approximately 3,500 public nominations are received each year).
According to independent polling commissioned by the government in 2009, 71% of Britons were proud of the UK honours system (up from 66% in 2007) and 3/4 agreed that it was open to all and was conferred for service given to country and community. These beliefs are substantiated by current honours lists. Today, of approximately 3,000 honours conferred annually, the vast majority are bestowed not upon the privileged and the famous but, rather, upon the unsung heroes of Britain who make up the backbone of civil society. They are drawn from all fields, including the health, voluntary and local community sectors.
No longer are honours automatically conferred on individuals purely because they hold a certain office. Ambassadors, for example, can no longer expect to receive a knighthood (viz. our current ambassadors to major states such as China, Germany and Japan). Knighthoods and damehoods are today conferred upon school head masters, research scientists and academics. Times have changed. In the 2013 New Year’s Honours List, for example, 47% of honours were bestowed on females. And there is now an expectation that those who are honoured should have demonstrated a dedication to society beyond their specific field of endeavour.
Put simply: many of the traditional arguments against the UK honours system are no longer valid.