Culture and Lifestyle

The British Honours System: Weighing the Pros and Cons

The recent decision by former Post Office head Paula Vennells to hand back her CBE has reignited the debate surrounding the British honours system. With 1.2 million people signing a petition urging her to return the honour, the process of awarding such distinctions has come under scrutiny once again. In this article, we'll explore the pros and cons of the British honours system, shedding light on both sides of the argument.

Table of Contents

Pro: Credit for the Underrated Heroes

One of the primary arguments in favour of the honours system is its ability to provide recognition and clout to individuals who have made significant contributions in their respective fields. The system, according to the Financial Times, serves as an essential tool for acknowledging outstanding achievers and unsung heroes. Those who have selflessly worked to improve their communities, dedicating their time, energy, and enthusiasm for the benefit of others, find a platform through these honours. As the Oxford Mail suggests, this recognition is crucial for those who have spent a lifetime making a positive impact.

However, it's important to note, as Matthew Mokhefi-Ashton points out in The Conversation, that occasional awards to unsuitable individuals should not be the basis for abolishing the entire system.

Con: Cronyism Allegations

Critics have long raised concerns about the selection criteria for honours, particularly in the political honours system. The Guardian highlights how peerages, knighthoods, and damehoods are often bestowed upon MPs, party grandees, and donors, leading to accusations of corrupt patronage. The system is criticised for favouring political connections over genuine merit, with major party donors and those who have received generous remunerations during their time in public office benefiting disproportionately.

The Financial Times argues that such cronyism severely undermines the system, eroding public goodwill. Suggestions for reform include preventing the awarding of honours to politicians while in office, but the likelihood of wholesale reform remains uncertain due to the entrenched nature of political patronage in the UK.

Pro: Motivation for Good

Supporters of the honours system contend that it can serve as a powerful motivator for individuals to engage in charitable and philanthropic work. By recognising selflessness and dedication to making the world a better place, the system encourages more people to get involved, volunteer, donate, or offer support in various ways. Andrew Vine, a columnist for The Yorkshire Post, argues that as long as the honours continue to highlight and reward such altruistic efforts, they remain valuable and worth treasuring.

Con: Link to Empire

A point of discomfort for some critics is the historical connection between the British honours system and the British Empire. Figures like Howard Gayle, the first black footballer to play for Liverpool, and poet Benjamin Zephaniah have rejected honours due to the system's association with a painful colonial past. Such sentiments highlight the challenge of disentangling the honours system from its imperial roots and addressing concerns about its historical baggage.

Pro: Cost-Effective Recognition

One practical advantage of the honours system is its cost-effectiveness. As Henry Hill notes in UnHerd, the system offers a relatively inexpensive way to honour individuals. There are no substantial financial commitments, with recipients receiving symbols such as a medal, sash, or letters after their name, along with the opportunity to participate in a formal ceremony. However, it's worth noting that, according to BuzzFeed's 2016 report, the honours system does incur an annual cost of over £1 million, funded by public funds.

Con: Cancel Culture Concerns

Another aspect that has raised eyebrows is the lack of transparency in the revocation of honours. In 2020, nine individuals had their honours revoked, a process described by The Times as "shrouded in secrecy." This clandestine aspect has led to concerns about a potential "cancel culture" operating behind the scenes of the honours system. Critics, such as Michael Collins writing for The Critic, worry about the implications of a system where awards can be quietly stripped without clear public knowledge or understanding.