New year, new titles, same old system

WHAT have all these people got in common: Graham Badman, Mark Goldring, Selwyn Image, Jules Pipe and Irene Lucas?Or these: David Barnardo, Debby Reynolds, Pauline Adams, Dolores Byrne and Michael Waterland?How about Kathleen Aldom, Kiran Bali, George Beecham, Antoni Burakowski and Fred Cobain?No, I'd never heard of them until just now, either - well, apart from one who happens to be a long-ago work acquaintance of mine.

Aidan Semmens

WHAT have all these people got in common: Graham Badman, Mark Goldring, Selwyn Image, Jules Pipe and Irene Lucas?

Or these: David Barnardo, Debby Reynolds, Pauline Adams, Dolores Byrne and Michael Waterland?

How about Kathleen Aldom, Kiran Bali, George Beecham, Antoni Burakowski and Fred Cobain?

No, I'd never heard of them until just now, either - well, apart from one who happens to be a long-ago work acquaintance of mine.

Perhaps it would help if I added a few more familiar names.

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To the first list let's add Brendan Foster, Leslie Phillips and Julie Walters.

On the second list you can put Jason Robinson, Kylie Minogue and Des Lynam.

It's harder to find famous names for list three but world snooker champion John Higgins is there, and you might just remember former Sheffield United goalkeeper Alan Hodgkinson, who won five England caps in the late 1950s.

As you may by now have figured, from this week they are all entitled to add letters to their names.

The first lot all became CBEs in the New Year's Honours list. The second group are OBEs and the third mere MBEs.

I've never been quite clear whether CBE or OBE is higher, but I know MBE is a lesser rank because it's handed out to so many ordinary mortals, like the Sunderland bus-driver honoured “for services to public transport”.

And of course they're all ever so much humbler than the newly exalted Sir Michael Parkinson and Dame Jacqueline Wilson.

Dame Jackie's come a long way from her days as office help on the teen mag that was named after her. Her books are excellent, but will she be able to connect any better with her young readers as a dame of the realm?

But the real question about the whole bi-annual honours circus is not who are the latest recipients of the nation's Blue Peter badges, but what is it all about anyway?

Nothing preserves or illustrates the persistence of the British class system better than the roll-call of supposed “honour”. Even the titles are daft anachronisms - Knights Bachelor, Order of St Michael and St George, Order of the Bath.

(Whose bath, I sometimes wonder, do these honoured worthies get to attend? No doubt some member of the Royal family - but not the Queen, surely?)

The odd Parky, Fergie or Rolling Stone aside, most members of these orders were born to status and/or money. Born with silver, not plastic, spoons in their mouths.

The generals, air vice-marshalls, probably most of the captains of industry and commerce too, are undoubtedly products of good old upper-class public schools.

As, incidentally, are the leaders of all three of our leading political parties.

Britain may be obsessed by its new “aristocracy” of empty-headed celebrities - over-paid footballers and their wives, “models”, pop-stars, ordinary Joes and Jades handed instant fame by mindless TV shows.

But all that's just a distraction. The real power and the real privilege still lie at the top of the same old class system as ever.

Of course it remains my ambition to become well enough known or regarded at something to be offered an honour, so I can refuse it. (I'm a little disappointed, Irene, that you accepted that CBE.)

Oh, and I'd like the offer to be of something a bit classier than an MBE, which is really the Order of the Dustbin, or Member of the Lower Orders.

IF Gordon Brown is still looking for that elusive key symbol of “Britishness”, how about the National Health Service?

Along with the welfare state, it was the prize awarded to the British people by its greatest Labour government for winning the war. And a darned good prize too.

Pity, then, that even one of the NHS's bosses recognised this week that devolution has brought us four different health services - one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Gill Morgan, head of the NHS Confederation, which represents health trusts, said: “We basically have four different systems.”

In England, she said, the emphasis has been on choice, while the Scots system is more “collectivist”, and in Wales prescriptions are still free.

The idea of patients being able to shop around for operations abroad on the NHS may have gone away for now.

But how long before we hear of someone popping up to Glasgow for better treatment?