The New Year’s Honours: what exactly are we honouring?

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The most recent instalment of the New Year’s honours list has, as ever, proved contentious. To some, the purpose of the list remains obscure. To others, it is a remnant of an elitist imperial past. Who are the honours celebrating, and why? Rarely do we see the most prestigious titles going to “ordinary people for doing extraordinary things”, to quote Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling. Instead, we see them going to athletes and actors, to politicians and those they wish to patronise. How legitimate, then, are the New Year’s honours as a celebration of service and achievement?

This year, it is Tony Blair’s knighthood that has become the focal point of much of the criticism levelled against the honours system, raising important questions about what exactly constitutes eligibility for the awards. Is it right to bestow the highest existing order of knighthood upon a man considered by some to be a war criminal, simply because he once performed the role of prime minister? And what do such criteria imply about the system? If knighthoods and honours can be granted based on tradition alone, their legitimacy as a means of rewarding genuine achievement seems flimsy at best.

If knighthoods and honours can be granted based on tradition alone, their legitimacy as a means of rewarding genuine achievement seems flimsy at best

Furthermore, the nomenclature of the various titles dished out in the honours list has been criticised for its outdated and some would argue offensive imperial heritage. Benjamin Zephaniah, a poet and writer of Caribbean descent, rejected an OBE in 2003 in part because the title that the acronym denotes—Officer of the Order of the British Empire—contains “that word ‘empire’” a word that to him summons images of the slavery and oppression that said empire was built upon. It’s a fair point. While 15.1% of this year’s recipients hailed from BAME backgrounds, with ex-Sunderland captain Gary being honoured for his work tackling racism in football, it is hard to argue with Zephaniah’s suggestion that perhaps “we should stop going on about the empire. Let’s do something else.” There are better ways to thank those fighting against the harmful legacies of the British Empire than by ‘honouring’ them with a title that invokes it.

Nor should those who have earned their honours be grouped in the same bracket as the reams of recipients whose awards are based on their intimacy with those in power. We can’t seriously claim that the honours are based on merit, achievement, or service when the service of the team responsible for the calamitous Brexit negotiations is deemed more worthy of recognition than that of the front-line workers who have gone above and beyond for their communities during the pandemic. Of course, it is impossible for everyone working in front-line roles to receive an honour, but the fact that a government team have been honoured for doing an extremely controversial job drags the ideal of an honours list based on merit through the mud.

The New Year’s Honours need an overhaul

Moreover, allegations of cronyism have grown increasingly audible in recent years, as Tory donors and political figures have been granted honours for reasons that often appear suspiciously vague. The Conservative political strategist Lynton Crosby’s knighthood, bestowed in 2016, caused particular uproar as a move that rewarded services to the Tory Party rather than to the United Kingdom. For as long as these political honours are included alongside those of the more deserving recipients, the value of the titles bestowed upon the latter will continue to be negated in the eyes of the public. Political patronage should remain separate from the celebration of national heroes and their exceptional service.

The New Year’s Honours need an overhaul. Their references to an ‘empire’ are not only inaccurate but inappropriate in a modern Britain that has not been able to call itself an empire in any sense since the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Moreover, to those, like Zephaniah, whose ancestors suffered at the hands of the British Empire, such references reek of elitism and colonialism—and the evils that have been borne of both. The practice of granting honours based on custom is in urgent need of change, and the independent oversight of the awards must be exercised with far greater scrutiny than it has been to date. Once the New Year’s honours come to represent the Britain of today and once they come to celebrate the exceptional service and achievements of ordinary people, only then will they shake their image as a meaningless ceremony of patronage and pomposity.

Image: Nikkis Fotosite via Flickr

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