Honours: why “doing the day job” is more important than the PASC thinks

The Commons Public Administration Committee (PASC) has just released its latest report on the British Honours system: the arcane process of doling out OBEs, knighthoods and so on.

The report is highly critical both of the lack of transparency of the entire process, and the continuing tendency for gongs to be awarded to “the usual suspects” – captains of industry, civil servants, politicians and so on who seem to get their awards not for any particular excellence above and beyond the norm, but simply because they are “doing the day job”. This despite pronouncements by successive Prime Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries that more should be done to recognise exceptional service, especially community service, and that just doing what one is paid to do should no longer be a criterion.

By and large, I think “hooray”. I’m all for honours going to people who actually make a difference, who serve selflessly, and without regard for the gong they might get.

But I noticed one omission from the report, and that was any mention of the fact that there used to be a reason why honours once went with jobs and not people:  because the honour went with the role, not the person performing it.

This strikes me as an important omission. I think – and this is just an impression – that it’s part of a loss of the language and ideals of ‘professionalism’ or ‘duty’ that used to go with such positions. Over the last 20-30 years, we have seen less and less of the idea that people perform different roles in life and that they can compartmentalise those roles. Professionalism used to involve putting aside one’s personal preferences, interests and views and acting in accordance with collective goals – corporate ones, national ones, family ones, whatever. We would judge integrity by examing how well one was able to put aside ego and private concerns when dealing with public problems.

Now, however, we tend to judge integrity by comparing behaviour across different settings. Is Jane’s facebook page full of drunken ravings? She won’t make a good employee then. Is Jack a bit of a protestor, a stirrer, a campaigner? We’d better not give him a leadership role. Does the Prime Minister drink/smoke/chillax? Weirdo – he’s not the same person in setting X as he is in setting Y.

The idea that we could neatly compartmentalise was always an exaggeration – partiality creeps into our decision making in all sorts of ways that we are frequently unaware of, and it could be used to mask the fact that people are often systematically biased towards their class, clan or college. But the opposite ideal seems to me to be rather creepy, bordering on the totalitarian. Who says I can’t behave like a wannabe rocker when I strap my guitar on, but an academic presenting arguments and evidence when I stand up in front of a lecture theatre? Do we really want men treating their partners and children the same way – a recipe for parental disaster on the one hand, and paternalistic nastiness on the other? Do we really want people to be the same thing in all roles, regardless of the demands of the specific role?

I think the mania for consistency across all roles – fueled by social media’s public categorisation and display of the various aspects of our lives –  has its dangers. It can squash some kinds of creativity and responsiveness, and threatens our ability to perform specific roles to the best of our ability, by undermining our ability to put our particular drives and desires to one side for a shared purpose.

And so that is why, even though I applaud the sentiments about more openness and community-mindedness, I am somewhat cautious in my praise for the recommendations on honours from the PASC. Sometimes, “doing the day job” is exactly what we should be honouring, not because of some professional achievement, as Sir Bob Kerslake said in the report (p.9), but if so doing increases our ability to separate roles, to put our egos to one side, and serve the public.

That is not to say that there is nothing wrong with the present British (and Commonwealth) Honours system. There is, and it needs reform. But in not thoroughly discussing the reasons in favour of the old “day job” system, the present review misses something important.

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