Designs for Modern Britain

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This page is intended to cover matters relating to the desirable organisation of  Britain as a country. These include the organs of national government, regional government, local government, the civil service, the armed forces, state pension, health, and education systems, the role of charities, professional bodies, universities and so on. Comparisons are invited with other countries.

The very notion of consciously organising a country for the future is anathema to most of the  British political establishment who seem to think that institutions and organisations should evolve only when there is some form of irresistible demand for change at the time.

Actually of course all organisations, the armed forces, government, both local and central, have been created at some time or other for specific purposes. The aversion to the concept of organising our country for the future is actually an aversion to analysis from first principles and then introducing  new ways of doing things (i.e. according to Britain Watch principles).

The preference of the British political establishment (and probably those in most democratic countries) is to add new things on to existing set-ups and gradually divert resources to those new things. In terms of change management  this is much easier than shutting whole organisations down with the massive redeployment, indeed in some cases unemployment, which will result from analysis plus action. In the private sector this a very familiar part of business life, but in the public sector it is all but unknown.

The consequences in the public sector are over-manning both of jobs which need to be done, but more damagingly, keeping staff, particularly senior staff, in jobs which don’t need to be done at all. The job and office of  Secretary of State for Scotland for instance has been retained even when every single responsibility of that postion has been transferred to the Scottish government under the Scotland Act 1998.

Or to take a widely admired institution, the British army has just under half the number (58) of generals today as the 126 it had in Coronation year 1953 when the army was five times as large.

Two areas where  Modernising Britain is likely to focus because of their size and urgency are pensions and local government. Local government in contemporary Britain is now massively involved in pensions, employment levels and pay issues, since local government numbers and average  pay have grown significantly over the years of Labour government.  Average public sector pay is now some £50 per week greater than in the private  sector (NSO report 15 September 2010) and the going rate for a chief executive can now exceed in £s the number of people in their area  of responsibility. Unless the rules are changed, 95% of the public sector will claim a final salary pension about 75% paid for by the generality of taxpayers in the future.

Designs for Britain: (1) The Honours System

The Present British System

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 in a competition.

Criteria for national honours

While awards in the professions are set to encourage distinction in specific facets of their field, 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 below).

In general one might expect to design a civil honours system to single 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.

Current criteria for honours out of line with national needs

The number of civil awards is now many times the number of awards given out in the 1920’s and ‘30’s following 1917 when the Order of the British Empire was established in its five different classes.  Indeed one would think that there is some sort of inverse law operating: the more the UK declines in power and prestige the greater the number of honours awarded.  The vast majority (over 85%) of the senior honours go to the public sector and charities, which together employ about 22% of the work force.  People in the public sector also enjoy higher average pay and very much better pensions than the 78% of people in the private sector.

So besides the sheer number of honours, there is also the question of the criteria used to award them.  From the above figures, are we to assume that employees in the private sector which generates all our business taxes, goods, and more than 95% of our export income, have only about one twentieth of the individual merit of the public sector employee?

The criteria used were brought into sharp focus by the award of the DBE (Dame of the Order of the British Empire – one of the two most senior ranks) to a presenter of a long-running BBC programme called “Woman’s Hour”.  It is doubtful if this programme has much international reach, but it reached British public attention because the recipient, one Jenni Murray, a strident feminist and life long socialist, then publicly agonised whether in view of her beliefs she should have accepted the award, particularly with what she sees as its imperialist overtones.  (Most people would probably think that an Order commemorating the British Empire when it was engaged in an ultimately victorious struggle with the German, Austrian and Turkish Empires, was at least as apposite as an Order commemorating a garter, a thistle, a bath (or abroad – a golden elephant, a palm and so on).

As many will know, the procedure with awards is a polite enquiry from 10 Downing Street to the effect that the Prime Minister “has it in mind” to recommend the individual to the Queen for the (stated) award and would he/she indicate if they would be prepared to accept it.  This is to guard against those (very few) individuals boasting to the world that they had indeed been selected for an honour but declined it on grounds of their principles.  The said Murray answered “yes” to Downing Street’s enquiry, received congratulations on her award and then attempted to burnish her leftwing credentials by wondering aloud if she had “become a traitor to my class”.  (“Which one?” one might ask.)

Honours signify what those awarding them deem important

The more fundamental issue is raised of course by the public-private sector disproportion referred to above.  Exactly what qualities and level of distinction are to be singled out for a civil honour?

In the past certainly, large prestigious industrial corporations with an international significance such as ICI (now sadly no more), Shell, BP as well as major public bodies like the Civil Service and the BBC had informal allocations for CBEs, OBEs, MBEs, and the holders of certain positions are still more or less automatically knighted as well as being in most cases extremely well-paid for the job.  Certain professions are disproportionately represented – the performing arts, medicine, and the universities.  Now it could be that objectively these largely public sector professions really are much more distinguished and valuable than the vast majority of private sector occupations, for example export managers – but it surely underlines the need to be open about the criteria being applied.

Why should the Honours System be changed?

With the exception of the Knight of the Garter (Thistle in Scotland – even more uncomfortable) the Order of Merit (24 members), and the Royal Victorian Order, which are in the personal gift of the Monarch, honours are made on the recommendation of the Prime Minister alone, although the convention has grown up which has allowed the leaders of the principal opposition parties in the House of Commons to nominate a proportion of life peers for the House of Lords.  This convention can be abandoned by the Prime Minister at any time.  This means that combined with the recommendations for all the other honours, the British Prime Minister has more patronage than any other head of government in the Western World.  This is plain wrong, not least because of the huge inconsistencies which it generates as Prime Ministers come and go.

How should the Honours System be Changed?

1          Define what characteristics and achievements should be honoured.  If we are not to become a Ruritanian laughing stock, for senior, title-bearing honours there should be recognised international distinction in a major field, with a maximum number of awards per year of say three.

2          Define what fields should be singled out.  These should overwhelmingly be those fields which have a direct bearing on the solution of our most pressing long-term problems.  A list of these would be headed by:

(i)         Eliminating our huge trade and fiscal deficits by increasing exports and by import substitution.

(ii)        Securing our future energy supplies by bringing domestic energy production and consumption into balance.

(iii)       Developing technological systems and organisations to enable millions of elderly people adequately to care for themselves or be cared for.

3          Remove the recommendations for honours from the hands of the Prime Minister and replace it with an Honours Recommendations Committee in which at least some of the membership would be elected by the public.

Prime Ministers would still of course be free to recommend honours, but the sole criteria would be personal distinction and service over time. There would be no favouritism to ethnic minorities, women, the police, educationalists, minority religions or policies on diversity or any other political grounds.

4          Publish the criteria and procedures for awards in different classes.  Develop open channels by which anyone can recommend someone, including themselves, so that all sectors of society, private and public, can be appropriately represented.

5          As a by product of constitutional reform, the House of Lords would be abolished and replaced with an entirely elected Senate whose members would be referred to as Senators (see part 2 below on this page).  Life Baronies could still be awarded on the same grounds of distinction defined above, perhaps one per year on average.

6          Allocations whether formal or informal to particular groups would likewise be abolished.

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

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