Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Public Honours for the public's sake

from bbc.co.uk
Today I read a piece about the outgoing director of the British Museum. Neil MacGregor has been, by many accounts, a good thing.

One thing in the article that really caught my attention was that this significant person has twice refused a knighthood.

Now, I'm sure that there are political reasons for the man taking this action - 'political' meaning ethical rather than partizan or maneouvering. Indeed it's even more likely that MacGregor is simply a modest man. Perhaps he has seen the work as its own reward. All of this would render him an even more admirable individual.

However, what if we, the public, who have benefitted from his peerless stewardship of a public institution, wanted to recognise him? Selfish though it may be, can we not have our thanks registered? I understand the possibility that a figure like MacGregor may have chosen not to take a title to avoid the social burden of it (say). Yet perhaps we would like the opportunity to be able to at least express interest or perhaps even thank a figure who might otherwise remain anonymous for contributing singularly and constructively to their field.

The honours system (read more here) is a funny affair. It is not automatic - in fact it is arbitrary (anyone can nominate anyone) - and the committee that makes the decisions is independent of government. I am quite sure that the committee is, to a man or woman, intelligent, fair and makes its decisions in good faith, yet it still does this in isolation of the tax-payer.

I can imagine that there are honours-bearing individuals for whom this is an end; that their work and record barely substantiate the letters after their name. In all tributaries of life one will find the self-inflated co-existing with the decorous. I suppose that the honours system is no different. It would just be nice to have a system that, far from obfuscating genuine capability and achievement, helped us to illuminate it.

Ultimately MacGregor's (reported) action in declining an honour is the most illuminating, pointing the light from the person to the work, which has no opaque ego.

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