Posted by: Ben | June 16, 2012

Republicanism and Honours

Today is the Queen’s official birthday, the day the nation joins in celebration as our Dear Leader reaches the ripe old age of nearly eighty-six and a third. The reason for a second birthday is not, as I had always somewhat ignorantly assumed, to celebrate the date of the coronation, but rather to increase the chances of fine weather for the celebrations.

As well as extensive coverage on the State propaganda outlet, BBC1, the traditional Queen’s birthday honours have been dished out. Kenneth Branagh has been awarded a knighthood, despite saddling his superhero movie with an Australian soap actor who was so poor that Joss Whedon was basically forced to have him stand in silence for the whole of The Avengers. A special award for working class people has also been introduced in order to prevent them from leaving muddy footprints around the Palace and frightening the corgis. The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire once again shamefully ignored Keanu Reeves, being instead swelled by a number of other exemplars including Gary Barlow, Eddie Kidd and Armando Ianucci.

As a Canadian, Reeves would be entitled to call himself “Sir Keanu” if he was knighted, although both the award and his use of the title would likely be opposed by the Canadian government.

As usual, these awards have provoked some debate on the merits of the honours system. Some people (including, famously, Benjamin Zephaniah) believe the word “Empire” is intimately connected with colonialism and oppresion and ought to be opposed. Others consider that its awards do not always appear to be justified – there is a perception, which the evidence appears to support, that senior civil servants recieve honours as part of their progression up the career ladder. Similarly politicians and party donors appear to have an easier path to honours. As for the House of Lords, its life peers are merely legislators appointed by the Government and the title is not reflective of any merit or special achievement. (The idea that a country can claim to be a democracy when a large proportion of its legislators are appointed for life by the Government is too absurd to be worth the effort of criticising.)

The republican pressure group Republic issued a statement on the honours system in 2011. They say:

We take the view that the current honours system has been corrupted to the point of being worthless, and that clearly the system is used to award political allies and donors and to confer rank on establishment figures and the ‘great and good’. It is also used as a PR opportunity by governments wanting to promote their populist credentials by awarding honours to celebrities. It is an unscrupulous system of patronage and PR.

That is their view and they are entitled to take it. However it does speak of a certain cynicism of governments, populism and PR, a cynicism that is widespread but perhaps not wholly dominant in the UK (as evidenced by the fact that people do persist in voting for members of political parties at elections.) They later add:

While we accept that many people deserve public recognition through an honours system we believe the current practice of handing out thousands of gongs to undeserving recipients (often of a higher rank than the more deserving) cheapens any award.

Which is quite emphatically a matter of opinion, since they are explicitly setting their criteria of people who “deserve public recognition” against the recommendations of the various nominating bodies (“undeserving recipients”). They are entitled to their view. But someone evidently thinks the recipients are deserving, otherwise they wouldn’t be recipients.

I have known a number of people awarded the MBE for services to their communities in the past; all were immensely proud and grateful to have been recognised for their invariably selfless actions. None considered the honour worthless because they had to share it with celebrities, dignitaries or retired council leaders.

The British Empire no longer exists; without a monarch, the chivalric Order of the British Empire to which the majority of these gongs are attached could not exist by definition. This is the end-point of the British republican movement which campaigns for a democratic replacement for the monarchy. But no such movement can achieve its aims without broad political support. Most of the public support the monarchy at the moment. To change this it will be necessary to change the minds of the small-c conservatives who reflexively prefer stability to change.

Republic is, it says, not a political party. A political party must necessarily attack and alienate a large section of the electorate to gain a share of the vote from that section’s enemies; a single-issue campaign group cannot allow itself that luxury. It ought to be able to appeal to everybody, at least in theory. It is said that in a democracy, half of the population thinks the Government is extremely wicked; ironically, perhaps the biggest obstacle to an elected president is the fear that an elected head of state would have less public support than an unelected one.

Republicanism begins and ends with the establishment of republic. Of course there is room to define what form that republic might take (personally I especially approve of their proposals that the Head of State assume no military rank and exclude their extended family from the performance of their duties), but the idea that it necessarily excludes the handing out of decorations to “allies, donors and celebrities” is short-sighted. Silvio Berlusconi’s knighthood does not invalidate Italy’s republic any more than Jacques Cousteau’s Order of Merit damages that of France.

Prince Harry must find it confusing when he is criticised for wearing a Nazi uniform even though on ceremonial occasions every adult male in his family is expected to dress up as Colonel Gadaffi.

While Republic’s stance on the state of the honours system is derived from the best of motives and will be supported by many who are already allies, its divisive nature has the potential to alienate people from the possibility of change and detract from the objective of getting as many of the British public as possible to support the idea that a head of state could be chosen by and preside with the consent of the people.

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