When the man from the Cabinet Office telephoned, he was anxious to find out why I hadn’t replied to a letter asking if I would find it ‘agreeable’ to be appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. I told him I hadn’t got the letter, which he said had been posted to me c/o Guardian for which I used to write a column. (The letter, in an envelope labelled ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’, ‘urgent’, ‘strictly private’, and stuff like that, was eventually forwarded to me, but a month after it had been sent, already opened and resealed with Sellotape.)
In response to my puzzlement, the civil servant said, ‘This is not a hoax.’ It had not, in fact, occurred to me that it might be, but he explained that many people offered honours nowadays believed they were being the victims of a hoax. He asked if I would accept mine. I said I would. Then he asked if I would be happy for the citation to say that it was ‘for services to journalism’. I’m not quite sure how one can ‘serve’ journalism, or even if it is something one should aspire to, given journalism’s current reputation; but since I could think of no other conceivable reason for being given a CBE, I said yes to that, too. So in due course my name appeared in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List — together with that of Kate Winslet and countless others — as a new recruit to the Order of the British Empire.
The Order was founded in 1917 by King George V to extend the reach of the honours system to include a wider range of people than civil servants, diplomats, and others in the service of the Crown. ‘Today,’ according to the official website of the monarchy, ‘the Order of the British Empire is the order of chivalry of British democracy. Valuable service is the only criterion for the award, and the Order is now used to reward service in a wide range of useful activities.’
One such ‘useful activity’ is, apparently, the ‘service of transgender equality’, since it was for this that April Ashley was made an MBE. It was a decision by a British judge in 1970 to annul Ashley’s marriage to the 3rd Baron Rowallan on the grounds that, despite a sex change, she was really still a man that prompted the European Court of Human Rights to rule in 2002 that Britain should not discriminate against transsexuals but permit them to change their legal gender, which is what Parliament did when it passed the Gender Recognition Act in 2004. I don’t know what other service to this cause Miss Ashley has performed, but her medal feels to me suspiciously like another example of David Cameron’s eagerness (as in his support of gay marriage) to curry favour with sexual minorities. I doubt if this was the sort of thing George V had in mind, any more than it would have occurred to him to reward services to journalism.
Actors and entertainers seldom let you down. They are normally ‘thrilled’ to receive even the humblest honour, and an ecstatic Kate Winslet said that hers made her ‘proud to be a Brit’. But Albert Finney has in the past rejected both a CBE and a knighthood on the grounds that the honours system ‘perpetuated snobbery’, and he is far from alone in viewing the system with scepticism and embarrassment. To many it seems absurdly complicated and a relic of a vainglorious era of British pomp and circumstance.
When the writer J.G. Ballard turned down an offer of a CBE in 2003, he did so not only because he found it ‘ludicrous’ that there should still be such a thing as an ‘Order of the British Empire’ but also because the whole honours system was ‘a Ruritanian charade that helps to prop up our top-heavy monarchy’. Evelyn Waugh was another refusenik, but his objection to a CBE was not that it propped up the monarchy, which he liked, but that it was insultingly inadequate for someone of his distinction: a knighthood, he felt, would have been more fitting.
As Ballard said, people who refuse honours are mostly ‘thoughtful people and people of spirit and independence’, so why am I not one of them? I suppose that already answers the question. On the other hand, it would have seemed to me rather conceited to turn my honour down — or ‘smug and foolish’ as an Indian friend of mine said. Furthermore, if I am being honest, I must confess to being rather pleased. Somebody somewhere has seen fit to recommend me for an award, and some committee has approved it. It is an unexpected pat on the back by people I don’t know, and pats on the back are rare and welcome, whether one deserves them or not.