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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November 2003, 14:29 GMT
What do you want, a medal?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

We love to honour our heroes. Before a ball was even kicked on Saturday, people were calling for a knighthood for Jonny Wilkinson. But is a gong the best way to show our appreciation, be it for a lollipop lady or a flyhalf?

Sun front page
The late Dusty Springfield probably summed it up best. When told she was going to receive an OBE, the singer reportedly said: "Isn't that what they give to cleaners?"

It may have been a throwaway remark, and more than a little insulting to cleaners, but Dusty's words perfectly captured the absurdity of the British honours system in all its centuries-old glory.

Sports stars and captains of industry are showered with honours seemingly for doing their job, while so-called ordinary folk are given lesser baubles for selfless devotion to duty and tireless charity work.

The whole system is class-bound, shrouded in secrecy and, critics argue, in dire need of reform.

Out of touch?

That was certainly the conclusion of Sir Richard Wilson, who was asked by Tony Blair to look into the way honours are distributed in the UK.

It seemed a bit late but that was not the point - times have changed
Nobby Stiles on his MBE 34 years after the 1966 World Cup
In a confidential report handed to ministers before the 2001 general election, the then Cabinet Secretary condemned the whole structure as deeply out of touch.

Despite Mr Blair's promise to honour more ordinary people, Sir Richard found the twice-yearly lists are still dominated by military figures and members of the civil service.

And the nine secretive sub-committees that sift through the recommendations are made up of civil servants, panels which are predominantly white, male and over 50.

Labour MP Tony Wright, chairman of the Commons public administration committee, says: "It is a pretty devastating report. It basically says we cannot defend the honours system. If anybody wants to challenge it we will be in trouble.

"It is secretive. It is too controlled by civil servants. The honours go to the wrong people."

Plans ditched

But Sir Richard's findings proved a bit too radical for the government, which kicked it into the long grass.

Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver got a gong
It only came to light this week after pressure from Mr Wright's committee, which is pushing for reform.

"A society should try to decide what kind of activities it wants to honour," he says. "Not just inherit a system that is full of inconsistencies and is based around class."

He says honours should be "taken out of the hands of politicians" and given to an independent committee, like in Australia.

Reward dedication

But why have an honours system at all?

Charles Mosley, editor-in-chief of Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, says the desire to recognise achievement - to set individuals above their peers - is part of human nature.

"It is one of the most basic human desires, along with sex and feeding your family and survival. If monkeys were better organised, they would have an honours system."

Every country in the developed world has some kind of honours system. France has its Legion of Honour and National Order of Merit, the US its Congressional Medal and Purple Heart. Even the former USSR had the Order of Lenin and Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Honours perform an important function in society, helping to forge a sense of national identity and pride.

Only the most churlish would begrudge the knighthood that will, inevitably, be bestowed on England rugby coach Clive Woodward, following his team's World Cup triumph.

Complex and opaque?

The problem, critics argue, is that, in the UK, there are so many different grades of gratitude.

HONOURS SYSTEM
Queen is "fountain of honour"
But she hands out awards on advice of ministers
About 1,000 honours are on the PM's list each year
One in 123 diplomats gets an award, and one in 2,125 civil servants
But one in 15,500 teachers is honoured, and one in 20,000 nurses
No other country in the world has such a complex and opaque honours system.

Some people receive the highest honours in the land for the flimsiest of reasons, while other more-deserving individuals are overlooked.

Many of the heroes of England's 1966 World Cup winning squad had to wait 34 years to receive any official recognition at all.

Nobby Stiles, one of the members of the 1966 squad, says he was proud and honoured to receive an MBE from the Queen in 2000.

"It seemed a bit late but that was not the point. Times have changed," he told BBC News Online.

Yet England captain Bobby Moore was given an OBE in 1967. "It was said at the time that he was representing all of us. That is the way they said it."

But did the rest of the team feel that way? "I don't think so."

Media luvvies

Some have questioned whether sports stars and other media figures should receive honours at all.

"Mr Blair seems to hand out honours to whoever is on television at the moment. More honours should be given to people who really deserve them. If this was a proper socialist government, it would do this," says Charles Mosley.

Glasgow postman William Boyd, who was given an MBE earlier this year for collecting old bottles and cans for recycling to raise cash for local hospitals, agrees.

Roger Moore at Buckingham Palace in 1999
Roger Moore's CBE came in 1999
"When you see pop singers and sports people being given honours you think how many good people are there in this world who don't even get looked at.

"I was just lucky enough, because I had to seek publicity, as part of what I was doing, so I must have come to their attention."

Tony Wright argues that "the time is right to do a serious consultation exercise" on the way honours are handed out in the UK.

But in the end it will be down to the public - and so far they have shown precious little interest in change.

And without that the honours system is likely to stay the way it is for another 1,000 years. Inconsistencies and all.


What do you think? Does the honours system need revamping? How should we reward achievement?

All civilised nations recognise public service in some way. British honours are highly prized by their recipients and their families for generations. This discussion is just yet another attempt to undermine the once immense national pride in British traditions.
Kate Dawson, UK

The honours system should be transparent and focus on ordinary people achieving extraordinary things.
K O'Meara, Scotland

I think that the honours system is outdated and pointless. It seems to reward cronyism towards the government and ignores people who do a superb job, without media adulation and hundreds of thousands of pounds salaries. Maybe an independent, 'of the people' honours system should be initiated.
James Reynolds, U.K.

Quite frankly, who cares? Just get rid of the whole lot and introduce a local system run by Mayors to recognise those who represent the best in their community.
Martin McCall, UK

Actually, here in Ireland we do not have a proper honours system as such. Here we have an even sillier tradition of bestowing honorary University Degrees on foreign dignitaries, pop stars and the like. The only other major honour usually given is "the freedom of the city" of one of our cities - which as a way of honouring someone is also somewhat odd. There was talk of starting awards of the "Order of St Patrick" or somesuch, but nothing came of it. So cheer up, the British system is not the worst by any means!
Conal, Ireland

The honours system is a good way to recognise those who have made a real contribution to our country. There are two problems at present - a lack of public understanding of the way it works and the hijacking of the system by politicians. Educate the public (yes, you BBC and other media) in the merits of the system rather than the regular anti-establishment debates on it. On the second point, many awards are already by nomination - widen this and appoint an independent body to judge the merits of each candidate. These honours are not meaningless to those who have received them, and hold real status internationally. I would like to think that if I make a difference to the United Kingdom, that I will receive some recognition for it one day.
Mark, UK

I agree that there are plenty of people more deserving to receive an honour than someone who kicks a ball through a pair of sticks. The problem is we would prefer as a nation to reward that individual who kicked the ball because of the feeling they gave all of us rather than the individual who has been working for a charity. The people who hand out the rewards should be less fickle and reward the people who really deserve it.
James, UK

Scrap the lot, with the exception of the George Cross and Victoria Cross, and make sure that only the Queen has the authority to decide who deserves them. Problem solved, plus a massive saving in the cost of administration.
Mike R, UK

The problem with the honours system is that a very small minority of the awards come from public nominations. The vast majority are simply selected from within the senior echelons of the civil service... it is my view that a small independent body and council is established to control the honours system, in which ministers and government would have no mandate.
Simon Flinn,

Yes, it's unfair and outdated, but what isn't in today's society. Lets just leave it as it is, it basically works, people receiving awards have done more than the average citizen. I'm sure our efforts would be better utilised focusing on what really matters, improving equality in the delivery of health services and education.
Nick, UK

I entirely agree with Sir Richard Wilson's conclusions, I think the British award system has lost all credibility. The awards should be for genuine achievement and not for having the right connections or for being the latest fad. An independent committee, chaired by a respected and neutral person, would weed out the journeymen, self-publicists and political hangers-on who dominate the awards list.
Ian Wells, England

I think that titles bestowed on people that then commit crimes should have them removed. Lord Archer, Dame Shirley Porter, for instance. I fully agree with a similar system to the Australians, with an impartial committee making the suggestion to the Queen,
David, UK

It seems a bit strange to bestow honours which have no meaning in reality. As the British Empire no longer exists does it make sense to award the MBE, OBE etc? Why can't we have something more appropriate - Order of Britain Medal?, British State Medal?, Union Medal?
Steve Watkins, Portugal

To say that people like Jonny Wilkinson and captains of industry are rewarded for 'just doing their job' is a little simplistic. In Jonny's case, it is the natural talent honed by years of hard work and dedication, taking more than a bit of physical flak along the way. He played a major role in this country's biggest sporting success for nearly thirty years - some recognition must be due, unlike the 1966 team who were recognised only when many of them were long retired and, sadly, not recognised by the current generation. Awards for those who boost the countries status and create jobs should not be the issue for discussion, it should be the automatic awards to those in the Civil Service (surely a misnomer if ever I heard one)
Mike, UK

The system should be simple. Only give the medals to those who undertake activities outside of their remunerated roles. So civil servants who do work for charities in addition to their day job would still be entitled or those who have worked hard to promote a social cause whilst working in another job should all be recognised. The only exception to the doing your job rule should be for people who work hard in a charitable role for which they are paid. These people often forgo large salaries to undertake work that they believe is important.
Jim, UK

Once again the voice of the few threatens the very fabric of what we are all about. I am sure that the large majority of people are more than honoured and satisfied with an award. Not everyone needs cash to feel rewarded. There is no higher award than something from your queen. I once won a heart of gold. I was so proud and still am of that day and what it meant. Leave the awards alone and let us be recognised with the stars in the same way
Michael Briggs, USA

The UK Honours system is archaic and really quite pathetic. I lose some respect for every individual who accepts one of these "awards" but sadly we never get to know who turns them down! Democracy - meritocracy? You must be joking!
kevin peel, UK

Honour and awards should only be given to those who personally sacrifice something for the better of others other than doing their normal job. Bravery and selflessness should also be rewarded. Perhaps there should be two types of award - one for personal sacrifice and another for excelling in something be it in sport or entertainment.
John Bowers UK

They can abandon the whole thing as far as i am concerned, but I would like a knighthood beforehand.
Robert, NL, ex-UK

I think it is right that the majority of honours go to those in the civil service. They after all are serving our great country as opposed to celebrities or business leaders who are working in their own self interest.
Thomas Barlow, England

I find it surprising that so many people begrudge senior civil servants their honours. These are men and women who have given their careers in service to the nation and have taken a lot less pay than they could have received in the private sector.
Ben, UK

Ben, UK, should remember that the civil servants who "have taken a lot less pay than they could have received in the private sector" are actually quite well paid, and have a pension scheme second to none.
Simon Lord, UK

As an expat it seems that the UK is determined to wipe away all vestiges of a grand and envied national identity. If its old change it, if its traditional disband it, carry on guys the way the UK is going you will get what you deserve, a mediocre place barely discernable from the rest of grey Europe. No one should stand out or achieve, who says communism died? go to England, where the lowest common denominator rules.
paul ex pat , MI, USA

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