New Year Honours spark renewed criticism of 'medieval farce'

By staff writers
January 1, 2011

The publication of the New Year Honours list has sparked renewed attacks on the honours system as well as criticism of particular awards. Critics say that most of the top awards have again gone to rich and powerful people who have already received significant public recognition.

The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell described the New Year Honours list as “rotten” and the honours system itself as a “medieval farce”. He insisted that, “Most honours are the result of the rich and powerful giving honours to the rich and powerful”.

There has been particular anger over the knighthood awarded to Roger Carr, who chairs Centrica, the parent company of British Gas.

British Gas recently came under fire for introducing a seven per cent rise in gas prices, despite raising their full year profit forecast to more than £2.2bn. Critics say the price hike will harm the most vulnerable in difficult economic times.

Carr also attracted hostility as the former chairman of Cadbury, who agreed a deal to sell the company to the US-based multinational food company Kraft. Fears continue over the loss of thousands of UK jobs in the company.

While Carr said that he was never keen on selling Cadbury to Kraft, he considered that his job was “to get as much value as I could” for shareholders.

Peter Tatchell insisted it was a “disgrace” that Carr had received “a British honour for an anti-British economic decision”.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is said to have wanted the New Year Honours list to represent the “Big Society”, illustrating the local and community work done by unrecognised heroes.

In contrast, Tatchell said, “Local heroes get the low order honours, such as MBEs. Establishment toadies receive the highest rewards, knighthoods. Most of the top honours go to business, military, diplomatic and civil service big-wigs – not selfless, unpaid charity workers.”

Several charities are nonetheless keen to welcome the awards that their workers have received. The Amos Trust said they were pleased to see an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for Tom Hewitt, the founder of Umthombo Street Children, whose charitable and campaigning work in South Africa has been widely praised by NGOs.

The left-wing, anti-war fashion designer Katharine Hamnett received an honour for her work on ethical practices in the fashion industry. She has been made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).

Hamnett said, “I kind of tend to pooh-pooh these kind of things but at the same time it's frightening how nice it is”. She admitted, “It's seductive”.

The singer Annie Lennox, also seen as an anti-establishment figure in the past, has received an OBE (Office of the Order of the British Empire) for her work tackling poverty and AIDS in Africa. She said, “As somewhat of a renegade, it either means I've done something terribly right or they've done something terribly wrong”.

The acceptance of a CBE by the Quaker actor and director Sheila Hancock is likely to spark unease amongst Quakers, who maintain a testimony against titles. Quakers generally refuse even to use terms such as “Mr” and “Miss”, referring to each other by name only.

Hancock's award has already triggered disagreement amongst Quakers on Twitter, with some expressing disappointment while others distinguish honours from titles or emphasise the need to respect individual conscience.


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