I don’t actually have a problem with the basic idea of a state handing out shiny nicknacks to reward its citizens for their various deeds of good-eggery. It gives a certain coherence to that vague concept of being a national treasure; official recognition to the fact that, on the whole, the British people think David Attenborough or Judi Dench are not only talented in their respective fields, but also the sort of folk you wouldn’t mind having a pint with.
What does irk me is the hierarchy of the system. When Jenny Agutter found out she’d got an OBE, might her shiny happiness have been a little scuffed by the knowledge that Kate Winslet has a CBE, which is a more prestigious decoration? How do these distinctions arise? Winslet has an Oscar, which Agutter doesn’t, so maybe that counts for something. But Kenneth Branagh doesn’t have an Oscar, and he got a knighthood, which is one louder than a CBE. Meanwhile, the government has reinstated the BEM (British Empire Medal), supposedly as a metal-and-ribbon manifestation of their Big Society catchphrase, to include long-serving lollipop ladies and milkmen and the like. But why couldn’t those people just be given MBEs, the next step down from the O? Or would that have upset white-collar recipients of that order, local government officials and Rotary chairmen and the like, who are quite happy to be seen as less wonderful than Jenny Agutter, but still want to be maintain their distinction from the people who clean their drains? But of course, we’re not allowed to mention social class, are we?
The latest round of gong-giving has thrown up one intriguing little controversy; not, as is normally the case, about the refusal of an honour, but about an acceptance. Armando Iannucci, deadpan kebabber of the powerful and their foibles, has been awarded an OBE. Alastair Campbell, supposedly the model for the monstrous Malcolm Tucker, suggested via Twitter that this was inappropriate. And then it really kicked off.
For what it’s worth, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Campbell. Iannucci is a satirist and should occupy the role of a court jester, tolerated with gritted teeth by the establishment but never quite welcomed into its bosom – at least not until his best and most ferocious days are behind him. As it stands, all his OBE signifies is that someone in the depths of that establishment considers his achievements to be less impressive than those of Richard Stilgoe or Tessa Jowell, but at the same time more worthwhile than those of one Geoffrey Hopkinson, an 84-year-old beekeeper. I hope that makes him feel good.