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On my way back home after relaxing Christmas holidays, I was greeted with a special edition of a daily national newspaper. The main headline was separated by a huge picture of athlete Tessa Sanderson. In this context, she was a black woman at the centre of an investigation into the enigma that is the Queen’s honours. Shrouded in secrecy and privacy, for as long as I can remember, I have never really understood how the whole system works. From an early age, all that I could comprehend from the ceremony was that all the people involved became sirs and ladies. Years later, I sat eagerly, reading the articles and embarking on a journey deeper into understanding the saga surrounding the queen’s honours. I must admit, the article was quite cynical of the whole system, but after doing further research, I am not surprised.
Every year, around three thousand honours are awarded by her majesty the queen to individuals who have made exceptional achievements in fields such as the Arts, Sports and Science. Given out twice a year – Queen’s birthday honours and New Year’s honours, acknowledge civilians and celebrities alike for ‘services’ to industry and media as well. Set up and sold openly, by William the Conqueror, one millennium ago there are many different types and ranks of honours that are handed out.
Despite the prestige with which they are associated, the Queen’s honours are still rejected, turned down and sent back by some on the honours list. These include John Lennon and Benjamin Zephaniah, who both rejected on political grounds. John Lennon returned his after he learnt that Britain was supporting America in the Vietnam War. Most of Benjamin Zephaniah’s poems are about “overcoming problems caused by the British Empire”, something he clearly stated when rejecting his OBE in 2003. Others who have rejected the honours call themselves anti-royalists.
All the facts aside, I think that these honours are part of a decreasing number of ceremonies that the Queen must take part in. Even then, she does not do the job herself. The list is prepared by officials at number ten. Cloaked in mystery, the whole process used to be a top secret happening. More recently there have been many attempts to publicise the honours. For the 2004 New Year’s list nominations the public contributed a higher number of nominations than ever before. The process has now been revised so that nominations are sent in to Downing Street by individuals and leaders of organisations. These are then sorted through by an awards committee. The reason why everything is secret is probably because of the following statements. A recent review revealed that eighty-five percent of those on the committee were men, ninety-six percent were white and the average age was sixty years.
These are the people choosing the Queen’s honours list for her. And so the cynical view of that daily national newspaper after Christmas has been justified. Surely, a fair list cannot be produced by this biased sample of the population. Even more worrying is the fact that every detail of every nominee fits into a category and each category has a quota. For example, for each list, there are a maximum number of sports nominees that can be included. Also, the award committee have a target percentage of females and ethnic minorities to be included. Thirty-five percent is the committee’s target quota for females on the list (Hence, the questionable innocence of Tessa Sanderson’s third nomination). Again, this is not in keeping with the supposed fair, system of merit on which the honours system should be based.
Another problem is that there are no real criteria for honours list nominations. None at all. All that is needed is a nominator and a nominee. Some reason must be given, but there are no guidelines as to what the Queen (namely her award committee) are after. It is a real shame to have an award that only carries prestige and not substance. This is clear in the nominations. For example, Jamie Oliver, the TV chef was awarded an MBE, to my horror in the Queen’s birthday honours. A chef? Called a Member of the Order of the British Empire and given an honour by the Queen? A chef?
One other detail that puzzles me is the fact that someone can be nominated more than once. Surely the system ensures that they are given what they deserve in the first place?
There are many honours handed out by the Queen and they differ in rank and in meaning. Knighthoods, OBEs, CBEs, MBEs and life peerages are some of the more known honours. OBEs are Officers of the Order of the British Empire, MBEs are Members of the Order of the British Empire and CBEs are Commanders of the Order of the British Empire. These belong to the Orders of the British Empire section of the honours. This name alone is one of the issues holding back the honours system. Rooted deep in history, the name is difficult to change, along with the fact that some find it offensive. The British Empire, in a politically correct sense, no longer exists and so should not be referred to. The Orders of the British Empire however, does have a grandeur to it that makes some people strive towards the honour of an honour. The OBE honour itself, was set up during World War One by King George V, to reward efforts by civilians supporting the war effort.
Nowadays, it is not so much a war effort that is required but a nomination and some openly good works. After all, the Queen does recognise ‘normal’ people, like one woman who has been serving tea in Glasgow for eighteen years. I see it as the positive side, the alter ego of earlier points. Those that are awarded have a sense of fulfilment. They are very happy, as their good works have been acknowledged. Not only that, but they have been acknowledged by the Queen. They are able to dress up to the occasion, go to Buckingham Palace by invitation and drink tea with the Queen. They feel joyful and proud. They also feel special – a feeling electrifying for the human body. The feeling of being special has physiological effects that can’t be measured, the person feels elated and unique. After all, the Queen (and her award committee) does not just hand out honours to any Tom, Dick or Harry.
Also, the Queen is able to enjoy more time with her public, proving that she still bears some relevance to British life. She obviously enjoys proving her critics wrong by making public appearances and doing something. The honours are also a way of keeping a tradition. Since William the Conqueror, every English monarch has handed these honours out. Times seem not to have changed though. In the day of William the Conqueror, people were not recognised by the monarch with honours. In fact, they were probably ‘recognised’ with death by beheading or execution. Of course, I speak of those early pioneers in the scientific fields.
The inventor of the Web, Englishman Tim Berners-Lee, has only just recently been given an honour. More than ten years after its development, the web now plays a part in the majority of lives here on Earth. I was angry and upset at how long it has taken for the Queen (and her award committee) to finally recognise such a great man. And so, I conclude this article, in contempt of the Queen’s honours system. I am ashamed of the shambles it has made of such a good idea and I wish whoever’s task it is to make the system more transparent, the best of luck, in the hope that one day, I too may want to get an honour from the Queen.