What is honour? That was the question I asked myself when the outgoing prime minister, David Cameron dumped his predictable ‘honours list’ on an expecting and impotent public. There were to start with, a range of reactions like wether the honours were bad because of who gave them, or was it in fact to do with who received them, or perhaps the ideological hue of the government as a whole. All propositions missed the crux of the issue when it comes to the question of honours given by the British state.
This month we were treated to the familiar spectacle of privilege and power rewarding itself with leading members of the establishment and a trawl of sycophants been gifted with honours. Of course this was nothing new, the honour system as outrageous as it may seem to the progressive and modern mind, is a cultural tool of the British state used to bind its members together and only recently, welcome the occasional outsider in to the fold to convince itself its privileged is noble.
The title above was inspired by the motto of the Knights of the Order of the Garter, that most prestigious and English of institutions of whom membership is reserved to essentially members of the royal family, former leading statesmen and military figures. Edward III of England first inducted the order in 1348 as a way of binding himself closer to the nobility in a culture of conquest, feudal piety and romantic chivalry. Back then acceptance was only permitted by decree of the King but now the prime minister of the UK can recommend a select set of names to this exclusive club in addition to the other honours relating to imperial glory.
We in Scotland have our own equivalent, the Order of the Thistle created 1687 by King James VII of Scotland – which it does not go unnoticed, is consider to be a rank lower than the Garter in the system of ‘high honours’. The ruling class of Britain however has had in the past, the self awareness to offer MBE’s to Benjamin Zephaniah many years back and recently to Liverpool’s first black football player Howard Gayle. Yet this clumsy attempt to be down with the brothers backfired as Zephaniah historically refused the award and today Gayle rejected the offer of an honour citing the “brutality of the empire and betrayal of Africans.”
It would be easy to conclude that an independent Scotland would have no need of honours and the danger of replicating the cultural habits of the British state is all to real. It is possible to become the thing you hate, especially if you have been emerged in its self hatred, fawning and hypocrisy as a nation for centuries. But despite previous calls from spokesmen such as Angus Robertson for a scrapping to honours, there is an argument for a system that can reflect the unique and fresh path Scotland wishes to take.
In a world constantly defined by the financial and the selfish individual, there is surely some role for the community of the realm to come together and acknowledge talent and duty. For those on the left the notion of duty can be uncomfortable bringing forth connotations of ruthless and aggressive patriotism, the liberty of the individual crushed under the interests of the state. But for too long we have argued about the merits or dangers of the all pervasive state instead of what under pins it, it’s culture and history and its future ambitions.
“For me honour is the collective will and affection of the nation and community bestowed on a person not because of wealth or connection but in a free rewarding of undoubted skill.”
In fact a nation looking to throw off all the shackles of feudal preference could start by creating an honours system not under pinned by confirmation or association with the monarch. As previous examples have shown the monarch was the original referral for who got recognised and why. If Scotland wishes to be a nation with its sense of self rooted in the people and not solely institutions or figures then let us start by democratising the process of our honours.
The republican creed of France may grant us some inspiration if we tread with caution. For there are no longer knighthoods or peerages in France – or at least none recognised by the state, although you still find in the old quarters of Paris or Provence people who lay claim. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who reinvented the honours system in 1802, only a few years after the French abolished monarchy and aristocracy. However Consul Napoleon, who was not yet Emperor, decided to create the Légion d’honneur which his domestic opponents claimed was a return to the aristocratic titles and class distinctions that the 1789 – 1799 revolution had abolished.
The 114,000 or so French members, take an oath to uphold French republican values and to “combat any enterprise seeking to re-establish feudalism” in France. Yet France also has a global concept of culture at its core. You don’t have to be a French artist to qualify to be a French cultural “knight”. The cultural order, created in 1957, is open to all people who have “distinguished themselves in the domain of artistic or literary creation or for the contribution they have made to the spread of arts and letters in France and the world”. Scotland with its own diaspora and cultural connections all around the world can use this as a tool and expression of its internationalism.
Additionally we can observe the case of the Légion d’honneur – France’s premier military and civil award. Technically, the “legion” is an exclusive club, rather an award: a club in France which does not accept foreigners. Harold Pinter was one of the few awarded for his playwriting, but he and the other foreign “legionnaires”, cannot be “members” of the Order of the Légion d’ honneur itself. They can only be decorated with its insignia. Again another oprion that Scotland can adapt and change to be more inclusive and recognising of not exclusive nationality but cultural soft power.
Other civilian awards include the Ordre national du Mérite (for distinguished service to the French state) and the Ordre des Palmes Académiques (for distinguished academic work). There are also the Ordre du Mérite Agricole, Ordre du Mérite Maritime and arts and letters order which is considered the most junior of them all in France but in Scotland we can change this. Writers, Sculptures and Painters of which we have so many in high quality must be cherished by the nation too. Moreover unlike the French, we must ensure we do not end up gifting an honour to a Saudi prince for services rendered.
An innovation I believe we should adopt would be that instead of the first minister choosing whom she thought were worthy candidates for honours, a set of nominees from all sections of industry, arts and society would be selected through electoral colleges. These electoral colleges could come under the umbrella of the Saltire Society and would be separately made up of all the voluntary organisations, literary organisations, trade unions, financial, agricultural and more groupings who would nominate to a pool.
The pool would be then observed and debated on by Holyrood in an open set of sessions free for the public to attended and place emergency suggestions through petition. This may sound chaotic and most probably would end in myself railing against the parliament denying me the ‘Order of Books’. But the open nomination style and the debating of the worth of honour itself speaks to a different motivation and route for a Scotland where traditions maybe loved but never cherished beyond reason or the psychological damage they inflict.
We could also make a positive attempt to recognise the posthumous, current and future achievements of more women and working class Scotland both which beffort and during the union have existed in a corner allocated by ‘men of good breeding’ and professional Scotland.
For me honour is the collective will and affection of the nation and community bestowed on a person not because of wealth or connection but in a free rewarding of undoubted skill.
Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks evil of it), for indeed I am ashamed when I think of the fact I am part of a nation that still is as Napoleon famously quipped “lead by such baubles.” Now is the time to start thinking and planning how to break down the cultural and institutional barriers for the future Scotland.
Now is the time for all of us to reclaim our honour.