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Invidious honours system open to abuse

[18 Jan 2015] Funny that so soon after the New Year’s Honours list was published, a UK newspaper should feature Didy Grahame, the steely retiring secretary of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association. She once told Uganda dictator and occasional madman Idi Amin to remove a fake VC from his bemedalled uniform – which he meekly did.

For the honours system is so fake and phony it has become even more of a laughing stock than it ever was: ‘arbitrary, anachronistic and in many respects tawdry’, as the Daily Mail’s columnist Stephen Glover called it. Not that some of those receiving gongs don’t deserve society’s thanks and recognition, but most have already had plenty of that, particularly sportspeople and artistic performers. As for all the political hangers-on and civil servants who bag awards like an ‘OBE’, ie Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (a thing that hasn’t existed for 50 years), most of them have either already been handsomely paid for doing their jobs or spent years brown-nosing and nest-feathering in the political parties.

Whitehall keeps a list of around 350 people who have refused honours, probably to avoid the mistake of asking them a second time. It includes Benjamin Zephaniah, Danny Boyle, Nigella Lawson, Helen Mirren, Alan Bennett, David Bowie and Ken Loach. The band of deceased refuseniks includes LS Lowry (who turned down awards, including a knighthood, five times and kept quiet about it), Graham Greene and Roald Dahl. Among those who may have been expected to refuse but didn’t, the anti-Establishment playwright Sir David Hare stands out.

There is one other piece of honours fakery that could and should be swept away: the doling out of ‘honorary degrees’ (ie, non-degrees) by universities – and it’s a worldwide phenomenon, not just a loopy British practice. These enable graduates who have earned real degrees to bask in the reflected glory of celebrities and grandees who are getting phony ones. The audience has to sit through a long swank of self-deprecating (aka, self-glorying) thank-you speeches.

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