We've recently had the the Queen's Birthday Honours list announced with the usual combination of famous names, and unsung heroes. This follows on from the former PM's Resignation Honours and the New Years Honours list. And you can't have honours lists without the call for a system that still talks about the British Empire to be done away with as the anachronism that it is.
A few years ago, a list of over 300 names of people who had turned down honours was leaked to The Times
. They included Danny Boyle, Stephen Hawking, Dawn French, Glenda Jackson, Peter Capaldi, Gordon Brown and Polly Toynbee. L S Lowry holds the record with five refusals – you would think they would have got the message. There is even a slim list of those who have sent their honours back in protest at something or another, including John Lennon.
With the growing public awareness of Black Lives Matter and Britain's shameful legacy of slavery from its imperial past, the use of the term 'empire' in some of these awards has gained a sharper focus. Another famous decliner, poet Benjamin Zephaniah, has said: 'It reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised'.
When George V created the Order of the British Empire in 1917, the empire encompassed more than 412 million people, almost a quarter of the world's population, and covered a quarter of its land mass. The order was created to fill a gap in the honours system and to reward civilians for war work, particularly in munitions production, transport, community and voluntary endeavour, and was given out across the empire. It was an appropriate title in the sense it did reflect the fact the empire was very much involved in the war. The first medals and insignia were bestowed by George V at Ibrox Park, Glasgow. Before a 60,000-strong crowd, munitions worker Lizzie Robinson became the first woman to receive an OBE.
One of the reasons the system has survived all criticism is that politicians love honours as an instrument of patronage. They seek to preserve that right by surrounding such appointments with worthy recipients from community and public service. Surprisingly, it has never been deemed quite the right time to make changes.
Let me be honest here – I feel conflicted but I'm probably not alone. When I see the headline 'Honours list published', I can't resist running my eye over the names, even to the extent of looking for the Scottish ones or anybody local. My reaction then includes sharing the pride and delight of hugely deserving recipients and feeling anger and disgust at any recognition for self serving forelock tuggers. I nod in respect to anyone named as having turned one down and mutter something about the need to do away with the whole thing. Then I see the beaming smiles on the faces of Marcus Rashford, Dizzee Rascal and Lorraine Kelly, as well as all the unsung heroes of the pandemic, and find myself smiling too.
Okay. Here's the thing. Would I accept an honour? That's an easy one to deal with. I never answer hypothetical questions.
Why do I sometimes feel that life passes me by? That everyone else knows the secret, or worse, that there might not even be secret and we are all just drifting around in our own wee world, looking after our own little area of responsibility and building barriers to anyone else who might want to possibly join us/me.
How does the badge I wore so proudly as a younger person now weigh so heavily on me? I remember the days of furious debate with my friends and even adversaries as we locked horns over any and all of the, then, current political issues and controversies. It seemed that everyone was up for the conversation with the verbal jousting and positions taken, even sometimes just to provoke a debate. No real deep need or sense of having to emerge as winner or loser, just a chance to build on and articulate our thoughts and more deeply understand why we did not agree with other opinions or values which differed from our own. It was a form of education in motion and is something which looks to have been lost in the days in which we now live.
In the current climate, this continues to be highlighted daily, as positions are taken on what appears to be the merest whim and instead of learned or even learning, through debate, we continue to encounter vacuousness and empty gesturing, flimsily camouflaged as opinion. Any challenge to these, what sometimes appear to be hastily assembled and arrived at, lightly obtained but intensely held opinions, attacked or dismissed with little or no regard for the veracity and depth which the person challenging the views might understand what they are talking about. In a nutshell, the 'this is my opinion and I am sticking with it no matter how much you might be able to dismantle it with facts and reality' approach. This makes 'knee jerk', feel like an intellectual position.
I often listen to the radio when out on my increasingly longer walks with my wee dog and particularly like to tune into talk stations. Some might think, counterintuitively, but in context of what I said above about widening the worldview, I listen to stations which do not agree with my politics. It can be a very hard listen, especially the more populist and alarmist opinions and sometimes rants.
However, I don't blame the callers, for me it is always about the programme hosts with their thin veneer of objectivity, presenting themselves as reasonable, balanced and fair, while peddling their own political stance and encouraging extreme views, which they can either agree with in totality or dismiss with scorn as they throw out live bait to their audience, encouraging them to call in and take the 'debate' to more extremes. Problem is, it is successful and the poor sense and level of conversation which it promotes simply begets ever lower levels of debate ad infinitum (sorry, couldn't resist that).
An oft heard opening salutation by guests on one particular station I listen to is 'thanks for having me on'. Turns out, even though to me it feels like that is what is happening, they are in fact actually 'taking them seriously'.
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