There’s no merit or honour in glorifying imperial arrogance
There are times when Britain seems like a foreign country to me, an alien place with alien customs. And never more so than at this time of year, when the New Year’s Honours list is due to be announced.
Much fuss will be made of the small number of deserving ordinary people included in the line-up: local heroes, charity workers and community volunteers who have slaved away for years without expectation of recognition or reward.
An even greater fuss will be made of the sports people and celebrities who are honoured, not for years of selfless drudgery, but for crowd-pleasing athletic prowess, or simply for being a cuddly old national treasure.
Yet none of this populist sweet-smelling lather should distract us from the fact that the British honours system stinks. It is a grandiose relic of Empire and any cursory examination of the history books shows that this is not something to be proud of.
If you agree to be known as a Commander of the most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), you're getting more than a medal pinned to your chest.
That title may sound like no more than a bland anachronism now, as quaint as the Order of the Thistle or the Garter, but by accepting it you're commemorating — if not implicitly endorsing — the grim and bloody exploitation of millions of people around the world who were colonised and ruled against their will.
And that's a psychic burden I wouldn't want to carry. Almost as offensive as the language and symbolism of Empire, to my mind, is the class-bound, intrinsically hierarchical nature of the system.
Again, don't be distracted by awards given out to unsung heroes. Delighted as these ordinary hard-working people may be to receive them, it's just cynical window-dressing.
Only certain lesser awards are open to supposedly lesser mortals like them, just as the higher-ranking awards are only available to top public service mandarins and the like.
You will never see Sadie the school dinner lady getting appointed Knight Commander of the Civil Division of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (KCB), as the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Bruce Robinson, was last year.
She simply wouldn't be in the running, because the system does not allow for it. But it does allow for the likes of Roger Carr, the head of Centrica, which owns British Gas, to be given a knighthood, as he was last January. Carr, who earns £450,000 a year, put up gas prices by 7% — even though profits were expected to rise to £700m. Just one more of those “extraordinary people from all walks of life who have made a difference to their community”, I guess.
The class prejudice and cronyism of the system has just become more deeply embedded by the re-introduction of the British Empire Medal, or BEM. It was scrapped in 1993 by John Major on the grounds that it was out of date and entrenched class divisions.
Now David Cameron is bringing it back for 2012, ironically enough as part of his Big Society project. He sees it as a way to reward people in the voluntary services. But this is quite clearly a token award for the little people: with the BEM, you don't even receive your medal from the Queen, but from one of her flunkeys.
This is no republican rant — well, not in the Irish sense, anyway. My criticisms of the British honours system are not motivated by nationalist fervour, but rather by a distaste for glorifying — in however a watered-down fashion — imperial arrogance, as well as the blithe sense of entitlement of the Bullingdon Club.
They might never admit it, but I'm sure that some unionists are secretly disgusted by the venality of the system, too.
If they would only just come out and say so, we could have a useful debate about Northern Ireland's complex, ambivalent relationship with Britain — one that doesn't fall into the usual polarised, point-scoring tedium.
But that's just one more of those honest, challenging, breast-baring conversations that people on both sides are simply too scared to have.
Here in Northern Ireland, we are in a unique position, standing at a remove both from the Republic and Britain. It should give us a clearer perspective and afford us the opportunity to speak with interest, but detachment.
When it comes to the British honours system, we should be asking: is this really how we judge a person's merit or worth?