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Karen Bartlett column.

Byline: By Karen Bartlett

We are, are we not, a quiet and dignified nation.

Last Thanksgiving I was in New York with an American family and their English son-in-law. As soon as they started laughing at how small our fridges were ( "How do they fit in their food?" Ho, ho ( and the fact that we don't floss, we fellow Brits caught each other's eyes across the table and exchanged a little smirk with our crooked NHS teeth.

Maybe our grass is a shade duller than their fluorescent Astroturf, and maybe we don't all own reclining armchairs in leatherette with a fridge in one arm and a telephone in the other (what's next ( a potty?)

But we have something that you can never buy in K-mart. Taste.

It's not much any more, but it's all we've got. And if it takes a few OBE's, a wave from the Queen, and a family outing to a stately home to remind us that we've got something to feel superior about, so be it.

Every now and again though we get a discomforting glance at a parallel universe.

A Britain where people drape themselves in the cross of St George, wear chunky gold rings on their index fingers, and appear on Trisha.

"What is this flag thing all about?" I overheard in the canteen a couple of weeks ago.

"It's basically the common people," someone whispered in reply.

And so this week we all seemed a bit hesitant and unsure of ourselves when a parliamentary committee forced us to think about whether we should reform the honours system and do away with the OBE, that majestic three letter acronym where trash and dignity collide.

To all intents and purposes the honours system is entirely meaningless.

It does not confer wealth.

Unlike membership of the House of Lords, it does not bestow unaccountable and undeserving power.

It may, according to one recipient of an MBE, help you get a table at a popular restaurant.

On the other hand, using it as a door opener or a way to jump the queue, may make people think you are a total twit.

Considering the fact that the House of Lords has just stopped proposals to abolish the role of Lord Chancellor, and is itself stalled in a half-reformed state ( like a horrible DIY project gone wrong ( it would seem that there should be more important constitutional matters for a parliamentary committee to consider.

To have "honours" that hark back to the days of Empire is absurd.

But politicians are, I think, fearful of pointing out the ridiculousness of parts of the package.

To do so might wake us from our collective denial and make us realise that the entire system is absurd, and if we want reform it would be more sensible to either junk it and start again, or leave it alone as a glorious outdated quirk.

But because the honours system is nothing more than marvellous, meaningless, entertainment starting again is not an idea that politicians should run from. It's an idea they should embrace.

Tackiness, royalty and plucky Brits. Where else could you find Tim Henman, a lollipop lady, Mick Jagger, and a retired mandarin called Sir Toby from the Treasury? Large parts of the country would love an all singing all dancing televised "Honours" spectacular, presided over by Carol Vorderman, and with telephone voting to decide the top awards.

It would be a common person's triumph.

We would all talk about it endlessly, and no one would be diverted to watch another programme where they might tell us about dodgy dossiers or political scandals.

Keeping the population so monumentally distracted would allow Britain to be as mysteriously and incomprehensibly governed as it has been for hundreds of years, always managing to keep power safe in the hands of a few elite ( and away from the trashy hordes.

In the world of light entertainment, it is, after all, a cheap laugh. We value you, you hard up charity-workers, school dinner ladies, and nurses. We won't pay you proper wages, or give you the money for that hospice you've run five half marathons in aid of, but here ( have an award.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jul 20, 2004
Words:696
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