Faced with the worst economic crisis in nearly a century, David Cameron’s mind turns to … flummery. Hot on the heels of the debates about male progeniture in the monarchy comes the bizarre proposal to revive the British Empire Medal.
The BEM was abolished by John Major’s government in 1993. It was quite explicitly an honour for society’s “other ranks”, as distinct from the MBE. Thus it went to postmen, school crossing patrols and park-keepers and no doubt Pearly Kings and Queens – loyal subjects who gave cheerful, loyal, forelock-tugging and above all badly-paid service.
Cameron’s rationale for reviving the medal is obscure. The ostensible aim is to reward people involved in voluntary work, who Cameron believes the current system overlooks, as part of the foundering Big Society initiative. He apparently believes that those who are “not senior enough” to receive the OBE and MBE might receive the BEM instead.
What on earth has “seniority” got to do with it? Couldn’t the Palace simply hand out more MBEs? And does the lack of “seniority” mean you get your gong from a more minor royal – in the old days recipients of the BEM didn’t get a royal investiture – perhaps it’s all an attempt to fill the Duke of York’s day?
And why the British Empire Medal, of all things? Benjamin Zephaniah’s scorching Guardian piece on turning down the offer of a gong explains all the good reasons why in this day and age the concept of the Order of the British Empire is wildly inappropriate. And where next?
Trying to apply logic to something as absurd as the British honours system is probably a futile exercise. And yet this bizarre gesture illustrates something quite significant about Cameron and his concept of class and society. The Big Society was itself an exercise in replacing entitlement with charity, of replacing the idea that the underprivileged have rights with the the belief that they deserve what the wealthy are prepared to hand to them. So this is a completely logical step, even if it does put the volunteers of the Big Society in their proper place. And it seems that this obsession with flummery is about using discredited and nostalgic tropes of unity to disguise the growing divisions in a society rent by feral economic and social policy. When Cameron talks of “seniority” it is really his deep yearning for a society in which people – especially women – knew their place and respected their betters.
Still, as you were. Keep calm and carry on …