Reforming the Honours System

The award of a Dameship of the British Empire in the recent Queen’s Birthday Honours to a presenter of a BBC radio talk show, the belated award of a Knighthood to Robert Edwards, pioneer of the IVF method of human conception also this year (see below), and the current proposals for reforming the House of Lords, all raise questions about the design for an honours system commanding general respect.

The Present British System of Honours

A national honours system is important because it signifies what the political system really values.  Since a national political system is ostensibly maintained to advance the lasting interests of the nation, it is essential that both public appointments and honours should reinforce those national interests rather than reflect passing fancies of politicians or indeed the determined insistence of certain groups to hold on to “their” quotas of honours.

Honours are used in virtually all organisations to recognise achievement over and above the ordinary.  Medals and prizes in universities and the professions, the honours boards of clubs and societies, gallantry medals in the services, Olympic medals, are all examples.

While there are always elements of chance and subjectivity, the criteria for awards in such fields are usually clear: awards are made to the best performing individuals over time or in a competition.

Criteria for National Honours

While awards in the professions are set to encourage distinction in specific facets of their fields, things are not generally so obvious for British national honours.  Bravery in the field of battle is pretty clear cut because this is a quality which is conducive to the primary purpose of military action which is winning battles.  But what of civil society? 

The pioneers of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – Robert Edwards (born 1925) and Patrick Steptoe (1913-1988) – a truly ground-breaking development with the birth of Louise Brown in Oldham General Hospital in 1978, the world’s first test tube baby and now a mother herself – went un-honoured until the belated award of the Nobel Prize to Edwards[1] in 2010 was followed by the even more belated award of a British knighthood in 2011.

By 2010, around four million desperately wanted babies had been born all over the world thanks to IVF.  In 2011, the same level of honour as Edwards’ has been made to a female presenter of a BBC radio talk show (see Designs for Modern Britain page).

In general one might expect to design a civil honours system which singles out achievement in those fields which any civil society has to be successful in to survive, above all in those conducive to earning its living.  Doing a good job for which one is well-paid should not be enough.

Ever since George V reputedly remarked that the Crown was intended to be the “fount of honour”, not a “fountain”, as Prime Minister Lloyd George tried to shore up his position by, in effect, selling honours, there has been continued public and private comment about the honours system.

Changes to the Honours system designed to align it with the long-term interests of the country are proposed on the Designs for Modern Britain page of this website.

[1] A Nobel Prize can only go to living people so Steptoe died without sharing one with Edwards.

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