Medals and honours

I don’t think I’ve received a medal for anything. I’ve received a couple of trophies – tiny ones that have more sentimental value than any of the academic certificates that I have. One was for football – that I received when I was about 10 and the other for ballroom dancing…when I was in my mid 20s.

There are three different aspects to this blogposts that I hope will ultimately come to a similar conclusion.

The first relates to awards and rewards for children. The second is the plethora of award ceremonies that get the media glitz – in particular the ceremonies where media people pay tribute to ordinary people. The third is about the state honours system.

My first experience of awards where trophies were given out was when I played for a local boys football club when I was at primary school. It was a world cup year (1990) and ‘world cup fever’ in those days was far more about the football rather than about the sponsors and celebrities. Remember that this was at the end of the decade that saw English football clubs thrown out of Europe because of football hooliganism. At the end of that season, the coaches approached us individually to ask us who we thought our ‘player of the year’ was – that award going to the boy that got the most votes. At the end of season event, all players also all got our own little trophies as a result of their participation that season. I remember a) Being speechless at having got a trophy in something and b) Having met a then Cambridge United player (Lee Philpott) who used to play for our club (and would later go on to play for Leicester in the Premier League) who was giving out the trophies.

Two things today that really stand out for me about those experiences. The first was that at a young age the managers trusted us with choosing who should be the player of the year. Democracy for ten year olds? It worked. Both the two coaches – from opposite ends of Cambridge’s social spectrum (One a Cambridge University academic and the other a plumber – completely different personalities but who got on splendidly) both had children who played in our age group & could easily have picked anyone who may have been their favourite. But they didn’t. They left it to us but managed it in a manner where there was no ‘peer pressure’ to pick the most popular kid. That gave a much stronger sense of ‘legitimacy’ to the result.

The second was that we met someone who at the time was a professional footballer who would make it to the top of the English game. People who say that footballers are not or should not be role models, I beg to differ. When you reach the top of your profession, there are a number of responsibilities that come with the benefits of scaling those heights. Very few people have that elusive combination of opportunity, luck and talent combined with hard work and discipline to reach the top – especially in the fields of sport and media. One of the reasons why the financial rewards are so great?

Moving swiftly onto the media glitz awards, it’s easy for someone to be disparaging of award ceremonies where celebrities are seen to be fawning over “ordinary people” who have done great things. It’s become more noticeable in recent years in particular with the military – a reaction perhaps to the initial backlashes against our armed services being sent to fight unpopular wars such as in Iraq. My problem is not with the military – it’s with the politicians and ‘The Establishment’. In a nutshell, award ceremonies do not replace the politicians’ responsibilities to ensure that our armed forces are properly resourced for the operations they send them on, and that they are properly cared for when they return. One of the biggest failures of politicians over the past ten years has been their collective failure to ensure that service personel are properly resourced and supported while on operations, and are properly supported both when they return and when they leave the military.

On the celebrity side, there is a part of me that is uncomfortable with such ceremonies being honeypots for publicity-seeking Z-listers rather than being an event to genuinely pay tribute to people who have achieved great things. (I’m not talking about TV awards ceremonies here). But it’s that vicious circle of needing big names to attract the publicity which then means putting on an event that will attract the names in order to get the publicity.

Finally I come to the issue of state honours – something which much as I think there is a role for “the people” to have an honours system to recognise those who have done great things, I think the current system is discredited. Why? Two words: Fred Goodwin. That is  without even mentioning the class system and segregation of people that the entire system underpins. So long as people like Goodwin still hold their knighthoods, or those like Jeffery Archer hold their peerages, I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable with the system that we have.

The problem the political classes have with reforming the honours system is that doing so means going into parts of our unwritten constitution that are otherwise left in the ‘too difficult to deal with for now’ tray. Is elevation to the peerage a state honour or an appointment to office where you are expected to work in return? (i.e. scrutinising legislation). The real kick in the stomach for the people of this country was from those peers who decided to relinquish their seats but keep their titles because they did not want to pay full UK tax.  What was it I was saying earlier about responsibilities that come with reaching the top of your profession? The problem isn’t just with those who gave up their seats but not their titles, it’s with our body politic as a whole. This was illustrated beautifully when Ben Bradshaw MP (then a senior government minister) tried to weasel out of a point being made on BBC Question Time before being verbally mugged by a member of the audience who left him speechless. He was trying to say something along the lines of “This is for Parliament to sort out” – at a time when Parliament was clearly leaderless and devoid of direction at the height of the expenses scandal. (If you can find the footage, please include in the comments).

Still in the ‘too difficult to deal with for now’ tray are the hereditary peers. This is the 21st Century and we still have people in our upper legislative chamber who can table changes to legislation because of which family they were born into! But politicians don’t want to unpick this one too quickly because it means having a solution for the second chamber – which they cannot agree on. Going after the ‘hereditary principle’ also undermines the monarchy – which causes its own problems for politicians.

In terms of state honours – military and civilian, do the medals worn by the royal family undermine our honours system? For example, why does the Prince of Wales have so many medals? (Don’t get me started on Edward – who seems to have given the subject of geography a bad name at Cambridge in the eyes of some of the students and academics I’ve met from Cambridge University over the years).

In recent times, the old British Empire Medal has been revived by Cameron as part of a wider agenda to recognise voluntary work. As above, I don’t have a problem with the principle, but couldn’t they have at least updated the name – even if it was to the British Commonwealth Medal?

So…what to make of all of this.

As a society, I think it is a positive thing that we can publicly recognise when people achieve great things or do good things over a long period of time. This is our way of saying “Thank you” and/or saying that we appreciate and recognise that person’s achievements.

In terms of how we do that, transparency and integrity are essential – something that DirectGov in part tries to help with. Having seen how part of the honours system works from the inside, I can say that for most recipients of state honours, the assessment process is rigorous. While the lists might seem long when they are released in the newspapers, the achievements of the recipients in general are very high.

The problem seems to be that the honours for ‘ordinary people’ who do great things are mixed up with the ‘celebrity honours’ and the ‘political honours’ – which has poisoned the applecart. There is also the ‘one rule for them, one rule for us’ issue about who gets stripped of honours and who does not. For example the former boxer Naseem Hamed was stripped of his MBE on conviction of a criminal offence. Yet despite the damage that Goodwin did during his time at RBS, he still has his knighthood. Given what happened at RBS, why have no criminal proceedings been brought against him? Is there a criminal investigation ongoing against him or was it all ‘incompetence’ by the masters of the universe? [Update 31 Jan 2012 – Fred Goodwin has been stripped of his knighthood].

On a nicer side, part of me thinks that there is a role for formal awards overseen by local councils for people who live within their geographical areas. I quite like the idea of local people being able to nominate people who have achieved a great thing, or those who have spent many years working tirelessly in their local communities while not asking for nor seeking publicity for themselves. Again, there would need to be safeguards – taking the money and politics out of it altogether, as well as a transparent process of nomination and assessment.

I’m not out to seek awards for myself – I’ve not climbed mountains, explored jungles nor sailed the seven seas. I’ve also not worked hard enough for long enough in one place to justify anyone giving me anything. But others have, and I’d like to think that at a state and local government level at least, we can put in place an honours system that pays tribute to those people. Because what we have at the moment is discredited and not fit for purpose.

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