The Honours System: Gift-Giving Rituals & Social Contracts

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“I'm rather cynical about the way the honours system is used, frankly. A whole lot of the honours system is used for political purposes by the government in power”. - Peter Higgs

Twice a year - on New Year’s day and the Queen's Birthday – the media reveal a list of those who have been selected for the receipt of various institutional honours. These honours are presented as a 'gift' to the individuals for their hard work. (Landres 1998)

Controversially, these honours carry heavy associations with the British Empire, with five of the eleven honours of a particular category containing the 'British Empire' within their names. As a result, with the apparent rise of the conscious citizen, it seems that more and more people are publicly giving praise to those who reject the honor, while remaining suspicious toward those who accept.

Following Landres (1998) in writing this, I view the “honours system” as a ritual/initiation that leaves many fooled and confused. A ritual whereby the recipients are ‘put to work’ and used as promotional tools to strengthen and brighten the public perception of the Monarchy.

A Ritual for the Empire

According to Turner (1983)  there are three stages to any ritual process. Separation is the first of these three stages which usually features a process of 'separation' from a group or from some earlier fixed state. (In the case of the honours, this part happens when they receive the letter informing them of the honor that they are due to receive and are encouraged to keep the news to themselves).

The next stage is the 'liminal' period at which point the state of the initiate becomes ambiguous since they are stripped of their previous identity and enter a “symbolic domain that has few or none of the attributes of his past coming state”. At this point Although the honour is already 'guaranteed', the recipient enters a period whereby they are no longer who they were, but not yet who they are to become.

During this phase, the ritual subjects usually develop a sense of 'communitas' which can be loosely defined as the feeling of community or connection that develops informally among fellow initiates during this shared time of 'upheaval'.

“When you go in, you have to separate from your guests and go into a room with all of these amazing people”. (Taken from Lewis Hamilton's BBC interview in 2015 - commenting on his MBE ceremony.)

The third and final phase of the ritual process is 'reintegration', whereby the ritual subject is transformed and reintegrated into society. According to Landres (1998) “The honour ritual serves to initiate certain individuals into a particular status that calls attention to their service – even to the extent of renaming the person by changing his or her form of address and adding initials to their name. In this sense “their personal identity is replaced by an institutional one”. They become part of the institution and representative of it. And after receiving this gift, they are expected to ‘work’ in return.  

This kind of ritual is known as a ‘Rite of Institution's - (adapted from ‘Rite of Passage').  It's actually pretty common - a similar thing happens in Universities - where the work of the graduates empower the reputation of the University. The main difference here is that affiliation with a University is generally perceived as being less problematic than a positive affiliation with the British Empire and all its horrors.

The Contract Designed as a Gift

In his book 'The Gift', Mauss (1954) observes:
“In Scandinavian civilization and in a good number of others, exchanges and contracts take place in the form of presents”. He goes on to explain that “in theory these are voluntary”, but in reality they are given with the expectation that the recipient will ‘return the gesture’.

In this sense, it could be argued that Empire Medals are more like contracts than gifts. Mauss points out that in gift giving rituals involving food, “One must voice one's appreciation of the food that has been prepared for one”. So it makes sense that honours recipients appear to behave similarly - publicly reporting that they are 'honoured' to have received such an honour.

Essentially, the ‘gift’ that honours recipients are given is the permission to use the Empire’s ‘name’ or ‘Symbolic power’ to benefit specific areas of their lives such as their own professional endeavours. But at the same time, the recipients are expected to serve the Empire.

It should be noted that honours recipients are chosen strategically, with certain characteristics and experiences needed for somebody to qualify. Through this public ritual, the recipients become representatives of the institution and unconsciously send a message that says “this is good”. The system in turn benefits from these notable people who are carrying out all of the 'good work' that the government strategically admit that they “should be doing”.  Interestingly, Benjamin Zephaniah who rejected an OBE in 2003, had this to say:

“I've never heard of a holder of the OBE openly criticising the monarchy. They are officially friends, and that's what this cool Britannia project is about. It gives OBEs to cool rock stars, successful businesswomen and blacks who... [through their apparent militancy] ...give the impression that it is inclusive.

It seems that this ritual allows the institution to appropriate the positive images of those who receive the honour, while masking the corruptions associated with the institution. This might explain why many of those who decline the award share the general sentiment of Ken Loach who, in reference to the honours system says,

"It's all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest.  

Final Words

When we allow ourselves to zoom out from viewing the tradition through the lens of an individual's personal success, it becomes much more understandable that so many people consider the Honours System to be little more than a ritual that serves to maintain this 'monument of exploitation and conquest'. The fact that these honours are awarded for an individual's service also takes on a new layer of meaning.  After all, there can hardly be a better way to select somebody to serve well than to choose from individuals who are already doing just that.

With all of this said, it seems that when we are discussing the issues with the honours system, it shouldn't necessarily be about the individuals who are apparently ‘too cowardly to decline'. But an acknowledgement and willingness to educate each other on the bigger systems at play.

It's only when we know better, that we can do better.

This piece was adapted from a longer academic essay. You can download it here, along with a full list of the references used.