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Last Updated: Monday, 22 December, 2003, 18:01 GMT
What do you want, a medal?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

After a string of recent controversies the honours system will be reformed, the government has announced. But is a gong the best way to show our appreciation anyway?

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 gongs 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. Now the government has pledged to do just that.

There will be greater transparency and independent input, the cabinet office says. A review of the structure and membership of the committees which recommend honours is also promised.

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
Two years ago, a secret review by Number 10 found the nine clandestine sub-committees that sift through the recommendations are predominantly made up of white, male civil servants over 50. The twice-yearly lists are still dominated by military figures and members of the civil service, the report found.

Plans ditched

The findings proved a bit too radical for the government, which kicked it into the long grass. It only came to light last month.

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

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

Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver got a gong
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 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 rugby World Cup triumph.

Complex and opaque?

The problem, critics argue, is that, in the UK, there are so many different grades of gratitude. No other country in the world has such a complex and opaque 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
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 media figures should receive honours at all.

Roger Moore at Buckingham Palace in 1999
Roger Moore's CBE came in 1999
"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.

"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."

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