The Honours System: A Subtle and Toxic Method of Control

Order of the British Empire (motto reads: For God and Empire)

Almost before the cyclists had put away their bikes and the rowing lake at Rio had returned to a mirror surface the campaign began.   With British competitors winning 27 Gold medals, some like Hockey with multiple team members, would the rules allow them all to get a New Year Honour? Doubts were assuaged by Theresa May confirming that there was no fixed quota for sporting medals and everyone who ‘deserved’ one would get one. But behind that discussion lay an assumption – that the athletes concerned actually want an honour!

An Unacceptable Compromise

Lost in the excitement of the Olympics all was another story of a sporting honour, that of Howard Gayle. Gayle is a retired footballer, the first black player to take the field for Liverpool FC and a proud Briton. In mid-August it was announced  that Gayle had rejected the offer of a MBE. Gayle’s reason was based on the title of the award, MBE standing for Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. As Gayle stated:

The fact is that I felt it would be a slap in the face for so many to be part of that British empire [my emphasis] process. When you look at what the empire did to my family and our ancestors, it just doesn’t bear credence. I would always have felt uncomfortable writing those letters after my name.

Gayle’s view is shared by others including prominent poet Benjamin Zephaniah  In any  civilized country an honour titled ‘British Empire’ should have been consigned to the dustbin of history a great many years ago.

But, irrespective of the title of the award, a more sinister process is at work in the honours system. For those recipients clearly uncomfortable with accepting an honour (radical activists, trade Union leaders, for example) the defence is often mounted  that the award is not really a personal one, but is for their members, organization, community and so on. In some cases this may be a genuinely held belief but in some there is no doubt an element of self justification.

The fact remains that by accepting an honour they are  buying into a narrative of privileged control. As the higher honours (knighthoods for example) are awarded by the establishment including the Government it means they are arbitrarily deciding which activities or individuals are worthy and which are not.

The control which is exercised is subtle and extremely effective. Consider another argument often deployed by recipients, that it brings publicity to the endeavour in which they have made a noteworthy contribution. But this means that to gain acceptance for their group the individual, who is often in some kind of leadership role, must be submissive to the monarchy.

There is no escaping the psychological symbolism of kneeling before the queen. The surreptitious advantage for the royals lies partly in the support for a narrative that all good things come from monarchy, a narrative which actually predates the empire. It is a self-perpetuating process, a Knighthood goes to a sportsperson or a famous actor and monarchy gets little lift from being associated with success and popularity.

Hobson’s Choice: Societal Disapproval or Cognitive Dissonance

I have written in an earlier blog post about the internal conflict which being forced to take the Royal Oath creates in the minds of dissenters.  This sense of dissonance is also seen in the case of femininist and republican Beatrix Campbell who accepted an OBE . Again the usual reasons are recited for acceptance but this surely is a case of a mental balm to salve a deep contradiction; the desire for affirmation of her radicalism from the most reactionary institution of all!

But even for those individuals who turn down an honour there is clear evidence that such internal conflict also occurs . Society singles you out and makes you feel unusual for turning down the honour. Note the use of the word ‘spurned’ in this Huffpost article for example.  Zephaniah considered that turning down an OBE might lose him some of his writing friends.

There has, of course, been many column inches in the press about how the whole honours system is degraded. The outstanding example was David Cameron’s shameful Resignation Honours list. Certainly when people like Fred Goodwin and Philip Green retain their knighthoods even ardent supporters of the honours system start to quetion its continuance. But it is worth remembering that the Monarchy and Government atr intertwined and the honours system is merely another way which ministers can use the Monarchy to their own advantage.

Most societies choose to honour their citizens who have made an extraordinary contribution in some exceptional or selfless way. There have been numerous suggestions for reform such as including members of the public on nomination committees, simplification of the system and even an honour in which the public gets to vote. As Gayle mentioned, he is proud of the honours he has been awarded by the people of the north-west. Following the London Olympics in 2012 journalist Jill Segger wrote

A Citizens’ Medal, given for virtue rather than status and celebrating service which is not undertaken with an eye to pecuniary advantage, might be too radical for David Cameron, but it is surely overdue for consideration.

The passage of four years and a change of Prime Minister has not improved matters!

For athletes returning from Rio the pressure to conform and accept an honour must be intense, especially if they are alone or in a small minority. But the honours system is set up almost as a trap and many people clearly feel that there is a validation. But for some it comes at the cost of submitting to the very system which has oppressed you or your ancestors and still retains an unwarranted influence merely by who they are. In that case, just like taking the oath of allegiance, the crisis of integrity is bourne by the individual accepting the honour.

The internal conflict is all that is needed to blunt another opponent, the tarnished reputation is an added bonus.This is tied up with identity, accepting an honour means incorporating a little of the establishment narrative whether you are conscious of it or not. It is asymmetrical. Royalists are happy, but there is no alternative for social or political activists. That is the trap. Decline it and be seen as odd, unpatriotic or a killjoy. Accept it and you face an internal conflict and feel compelled to justify it.


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