A solution to the Honours farce: let the people choose!
When Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature, his publisher told reporters that the man would not even accept a bag of potatoes let alone a bauble as grandiose as that handed out by the Swedish Academy.
As the Honours lists reveals every New Year, the French author was in a tiny minority. There are literally thousands of people in the market for bags of potatoes.
Sartre’s objection that honours risk degrading both awarder and recipient seems to have little resonance these days. The news that numerous friends of the Conservative Party leadership have received gongs will soon be yesterday’s twitterstorm. The fact that the supposedly objective and independent honours committee saw fit to elevate Rosie Winterton to a damehood while she still sits on one of its sub-committees seems to have passed without comment. The analysis by The Times which shows honours are essentially the public school elite enhancing its own status will be brushed off.
All in all we would do our nation a great service by ditching this bi-annual orgy of self-congratulation for politicians, civil servants, celebrities and millionaires.
But, as so many repeatedly point out in mitigation, a lot of people who quietly and selflessly do good also receive recognition. So if we must have an honours system to reward service to the public why not let the public themselves decide who deserves recognition.
It would certainly be more in tune with a world where elitism and hierarchy are increasingly challenged by people power to have this musty old system opened up to the fresh air of mass participation. A short-list of nominations against clear criteria could be crowd-sourced through an on-line voting mechanism. To prevent what might be called The Clarkson Effect, the final decision on awards would be made by a randomly chosen citizens’ jury to ensure that recipients have genuinely delivered public service rather than just being able to mobilise large numbers of devoted but naive fans.
One immediately satisfying benefit of this: politicians and their minions, senior civil servants, party donors and the super-rich would almost certainly never receive anything. One rather significant blow against the evil of patronage that blights our political system.
Of course, this also makes it highly unlikely the People’s Honours will ever happen. As the Tory scandal reveals handing out nominative prefixes and suffixes still remains a way to exert power and elites hate giving up power.
That’s a shame because, apart from anything else, how much nicer would it be for the genuinely deserving to know they have been chosen for recognition by the British people rather than some fusty committee meeting in the bowels of Whitehall.
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My book Small is Powerful: why we must end the era of big government, big business and big culture is published in 2016 and can be pre-ordered here.