From whom all blessings flow...
Earlier this week the national British papers, which is to say all of them, as there is only one London paper, The Evening Standard, and all the other big daily and Sunday papers are national (it is, after all, mostly one, fairly small island we're talking about), published the New Year's Honours List. This consists of the several hundred names of those whom the queen has decided to give a "gong" (the knowing slang for the insignium of whatever order the recipient is being admitted to). Besides the gong, each of them will be invited to an investiture, usually at Buckingham Palace, where "the fount of honours," Her Majesty, or a member of her family or her representative will hand it over.
And for most of the honourees, that's it, except that they can put some initials after their names. For the most part these suffixes are MBE, OBE or CBE, standing respectively for "Member," "Officer" or "Commander" of the Order of the British Empire. I'm not certain I've put them in the correct ascending order of rank; and, yes, Her Madge and her advisers are perfectly aware of the anachronism of giving an award in the name of something that hasn't existed for nearly half a century. But nobody has been able to think of anything better to call them.
Most of the MBEs are still not toffs - they go to local councillors and minor local government officials, beloved schoolteachers, charity volunteers and, occasionally, actors, such as Michael Sheen, who got a measly M, though he played Tony Blair in the wonderful film, "The Queen," as did Eleanor Simmonds, the 14-year-old Paralympics double gold medallist in swimming, the first under-18 to receive an honour and the youngest person ever to be given an award. OBEs go to slightly more important people, such as Olympics swimmer Rebecca Aldington and Philip Lane, the chief executive of Britain's Paralympic team. It's a kinda nebbish award, an O, whereas the CBEs are simply inexplicable, apparently whimsical. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine were both made CBEs this week, as were sailor Ben Ainslie and the track cyclist Bradley Wiggins.
These intrinsically worthless baubles are, one might argue (I would) devalued even more by being given out wholesale to people who participated in the Olympics, and to sportspeople in general. However, this does not stop them being hotly pursued.
Besides peerages (now rare, there were none this time), which carry genuine power of a sort, as they come with a senatorial-type vote in the House of Lords, there's another kind of honour awarded in the Honours Lists which is even more eagerly sought. Like a peerage, this is the one that allows you to change your name - knighthoods for the gents, damehoods for the ladies. These, of course, confer real status - though there has been some messing about with them lately - remember Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Mick Jagger? The Dames are altogether a more circumspect lot - those of our family acquaintance having been Dame Iris Murdoch and (currently) Dame Margaret Drabble. Now these are unequal in one respect. The wife of a knight becomes Lady (knight's surname); whereas the husband of a dame is still plain mister (except for Dame Maggie, who's married to Sir Michael Holroyd anyway). As for same-sex partners, they're lucky that modern manners mean they are now invited along for the investiture.
The currency has perhaps been a bit debased by the new, sports-crazy list, which included a knighthood for the triple gold medal-winning cyclist, Chris Hoy, who himself allowed that "To become a knight from riding your bike, it's mad." But nobody begrudges Sir Chris his gong.
Indeed, I want to defend the entire charade. Think how much it contributes to the smooth and fair running of a state when people who are in the way of corruption, petty government officials, civil servants, local bigwigs and even big businessmen and top politicians, seriously desire these trinkets. For the chance to be able to announce himself on the telephone or book a restaurant table as "Sir (First-name)," many a businessman or party hack will keep his fingers out of the readily accessible till, try to avoid even the appearance of wrong-doing, and shy away from scandal. British honours are the greatest aid to public morality ever invented.
I used to insist to honours-sceptics that Watergate would never had happened, had Nixon's henchmen and backers only wanted titles rather than money and genuine power. But the reign of Dubbya the Dim makes the point both more clearly and more forcefully. Of course it's too late now for America to adopt a system of meaningless but hotly competed-for awards. But don't you think a culture with these trivial ornaments is better than a culture where the achievement of wealth and power is the only goal of the best and brightest?
And, incidentally, there are two honours that are genuinely given only to distinguished people. The first is the CH, Companion of Honour, limited to 65, a reward for distinction in the arts, sciences, politics, religion and industry, whose current members include Stephen Hawking, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney, Judi Dench and Doris Lessing; and the second, the highest distinction in the land, the OM, the Order of Merit, limited to 24, chosen by the queen without political interference. Former members include G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin, and current ones Lucian Freud, Lords May and Rothschild, Tom Stoppard and the only honorary OM, Nelson Mandela.
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