Wednesday, June 06, 2007

In praise of the British honours system

I caught a commercial for a show that promised an appearance by Sir Paul McCartney and decided to check out what the Sir thing was all about. Turns out its quite complicated and a pretty good idea.

First, consider how lame America's civilian honors are. An unscientific survey revealed that few Americans know that the Presidential Medal of Freedom is actually the highest civilian honor America can bestow on a citizen. I think the first time most Americans heard about this award was when Bush awarded it to three of the guys who brought us the Iraq War.

Here are the Presidential Medals of Freedom awarded by Bush and Clinton.

A respected civilian honors system has some obvious benefits:

1. It encourages people to be better citizens (in the hopes they will be awarded one).
2. Once awarded, they encourage continued good behavior (the award can be taken away).
3. It hardly costs anything to run.

How the British honours system work:

A list is released on the Queen's birthday in June and another list is released at the end of the year. Up to 1000 people received an honour each year.

There are quite a few awards, here are the "main" ones:

A Life Peer - You are created a Baron (but your children don't inherit the title) and you get to serve in the House of Lords.

A Knights Bachelor - The one most Americans know, you are knighted and get to put Sir in front of your name.

Order of the British Empire - This is the one I found most interesting. There are five ranks:

1. Knight (Dame) Grand Cross
2. Knight (Dame) Commander
3. Commander
4. Officer
5. Member

A vast majority of British honours fall in this category.

A few facts:

The first two levels also allow its recipients to call themselves Sir.

So if the Queen (on advise from the government), wants to "Knight" someone, she can either award them a "Knights Bachelor" or name them a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

I don't believe woman can be given a Knights "Bachelor" award, so they seem to get awarded a Knights Commander more often so they can call themselves "Dame," (Dame Judi Densh).

The top rank seems quite rare. Here is a list on Wikipedia of GBE's (not sure if it's complete). The first King of Jordan got one for some reason. He was assassinated, just like his poor grand nephew, the last King of Iraq.

Recipients can affix to the end of their name their rank: GBE, KBE, CBE, OBE or MBE.

You can receive more than one honour.

Paul McCartney is actually Sir James Paul McCartney, MBE.

He was awarded a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1965 and a Knights Bachelor in 1997 (Sir).

So, you can receive multiple honours (keep being good!) and you can be "promoted" within the Order, from MBE to CBE for example.

I left out several orders, like the Bath, St. Michael and St. George, etc., but the idea is the same if on a rarer and smaller scale.

Here is the honours list where Sir Sean Connery was Knighted.

Anyway, I think it would good if America had a decent, well-recognized system of civilian awards, too. As I said, they motivate people to do good works and they don't cost a thing.

If Britain, with a population of 60 million, awards around 1000 a year, then America, with 300 million civilians, could award around 5000 a year.

Most would be at the lowest level, in recognition of public work.

I know some people think it would smack of Royalty, but few people would confuse Sir Paul McCartney with a stuffy monarchy, would they?

It's not like Americans don't already have titles (Dr., Gen., Honourable, etc.).

Order of America, perhaps?


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