The British “New Years Honours” Explained

Those dull days between Christmas and New Year can be brightened by idle speculation on the New Years Honours List.

Twice a year…….on her “official” birthday and New Year the “Queen” awards honours to her subjects. Of course these “honours” are actually decided by a department of the Civil Service… be precise it is one of the responsibilities of the Cabinet Secretariat. Britain is a society based on hierarchy. The Monarch is at the Head……there are “royal” Princes Dukes, Earls, Viscounts….. and hereditary peers who sit in the House of Lords. As the name implies these titles are passed on from father to eldest son. To take an example at random, the current Lord Onslow is the eighth to hold the title. It is a title created (per Wikipedia) in 1801.

The current Duke of Wellington is also the eighth to hold the title. The original Duke of Wellington, victor over Napolean at Waterloo in 1815 is of course the famous one.

To this day, the successors of the first Lord Onslow and first Duke of Wellington sit in the House of Lords. ..the second “Chamber” in the British political system. Although recent constitutional changes (enacted in the last ten years) have curtailed the numbers of hereditary peers entitled to vote in the House of Lords, the absurdity still exists that sitting in a House of Legislature is a right of birth.

Of the current House of Lords membership (795), around 90 are hereditary. Another  25  are Bishops of the established Church of England eg the Bishop of Liverpool and the Bishop of Manchester. But the bulk are “life peers”, around 680, appointed to sit in the House of Lords, only so long as they are alive.

The key thing is that these are appointees, in the gift of the Government of the Day. Many are political appointments. A recognition of long service for a retiring or defeated Member of Parliament. So long as it is capable of influencing legislation then the British Labour Party must make appointments to the House of Lords. Its defenders will say that it has a high standard of debate…for example on a debate on Foreign Affairs, the debate will likely involve elder statesmen, including former Foreign Secretaries of both major parties who can bring an experience and politeness to a debate.

Yet it remains a traditional and socially and politically “conservative”. Hereditary peers (total 90)…..Conservative 49, Labour 4, Liberal Democrat 4, UKIP 1 and “crossbencher” (Independent) 31……..Life Peers (total 680)…….Conservative 170, Labour 238, Liberal Democrat 88, UKIP 2, Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalists) 1, Crossbenchers 153. There are 4 UUP (Ulster Unionists) and 4 DUP (Democratic Unionists) from Norn Iron.

Plaid Cymru…..which of course seeks Independence for Wales………is perhaps surprisingly represented by a retired former Leader. Perhaps not surprisingly there are no Nationalists from Scotland and Norn Iron in the House of Lords. A former Leader of the SDLP (Gerry Fitt) did take a seat but it should be noted this was after he had resigned from the Party.

Notoriously in the early 1920’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George sold peerages and knighthoods to those who contributed to “party funds”. And a vague whiff of scandal has hung over the System ever since. Of course in the “golden” age of the Stuart Monarchy, “King” Charles II and his brother “King” James II awarded titles to their several illegitimate children and/or  the cuckolded husbands of their mistresses.

A “knighthood” entitles the recipient to describe himself/herself as “Sir” or “Dame” but has no real effect in “political” terms. Yet the chief awards seem to be a matter of “entitlement” ……they come with the territory of the jobs they have. Thus a leading businessman Alan Sugar is actually “Lord” Sugar. The Chief Executive of a Bank, a major business, the chief civil servant at a Government Department, or University Chancellor can at least expect to be a knight……such as “Sir” Peter Gregson (Queens University).

There is a growing tendency to give knighthoods to Entertainers and Sports people…..”Dame” Helen Mirren (actress), “Sir” Elton John (singer), “Sir” Bruce Forsyth (TV Entertainer), “Sir” Alex” Ferguson (Manchester United manager). Yet these seem increasingly like sops to the masses…….fig leaves which recognise achievement and popularity and allow the alleged trade in “honours” to carry on as before.

Yet Peerages and Knighthoods are only part of the Hierarchy. It is Pyramid-shaped. Underneath this is a series of awards such as Members of the British Empire (MBE) or Order of the British Empire (OBE). Occasionally these are awarded to local councillors and minor political figures. The more “deserving” are of course the (typically) Scottish midwife who has braved Highland blizzards for forty years or the (typically) charity shop manager in Bedfordshire or the (typically) underpaid social worker who has worked several years in inner city Liverpool.

Yet these awards to the midwife, charity shop worker and social worker are essentially totemic. It is impossible to “honour” everyone. They are merely a representative sample and act as a fig leaf to the cutting edge of the “Honours System”.

Of course as a social egalitarian…..a political republican….as a constitutional Irish nationalist, I dont like this system. I dont like the fact that it awards people by essentially sucking them into an outdated, possibly corrupt system which is anti-democratic.

Of course Republics have “honours”. France awards Legion d’Honeur. United States has its Congressional Medal of Honour. Ireland has no such award. But of course quite properly every nation rewards gallantry, heroism, life saving etc.

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