No more heroes

The UK government gives honours to victims.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics
  • No more heroes

People have been complaining for years that the British honours system is an anachronistic charade, designed for elitist days of empire, when patronage and status were very important.

To remedy this, in recent years honours have been awarded to ‘ordinary people’ – those who have quietly served their community in some form for years without ever attaining public recognition, like lollipop ladies and milkmen. This is meant to inject a little democratic spirit into the whole affair.

Whether you think this is good or not, at least this change was done openly and deliberately. So why haven’t we been told about another change? Rather than rewarding heroism, the honours system is seemingly becoming about celebrating victimhood. The most notable people to be given an award this week are Neville and Doreen Lawrence, whose son was stabbed to death in a racist attack in 1993. They have been appointed OBE for services to community relations.

This is a little disingenuous. In reality, when most people think of the Lawrence family, we see not crusaders, but a bereaved family. We want to give them recognition because they are victims. For the same reason, included in the list is Heather Saunders, whose husband Stephen, the British military attaché, was murdered by terrorists in Athens.

Although the Vicar of St Andrew’s Church in Soham (now an MBE) does merit praise for his pastoral care, this was, after all, his job. Pastoral care is what priests do. But the reaction to the murder of two girls in the Cambridgeshire village of Soham does bring out the worst in people. The government wants us to remember Soham to show how much it cares. This is why the gongs system is going through a turn towards emotionalism: awards are no longer going to those who have changed the world, but to those whose lives have been changed by it. It is less about being active, more about being passive.

Am I being unkind? Well, there are many families in Britain who have relatives murdered every year. Why are they not given OBEs? To take it one further, logic dictates that if the government is to honour those who have done outstanding work as dinner ladies, bus drivers and postmen, it should also give awards to those who have suffered in these areas too. What about the victims of bland, poorly prepared boiled cabbage? Or people who have missed their bus, or had something lost in the post? That would be truly egalitarian.

  • Do mention the War

One thing that struck me about the television schedule over the Christmas holidays was the phenomenal amount of war going on. In the week 22 to 28 December, on terrestrial TV alone, moviewise we had The First of the Few, Operation Daybreak, In Harm’s Way, Films Hell is for Heroes, They were Expendable, Action in the North Atlantic, Dad’s Army, The Great Escape and Casablanca.

Documentaries included Glenn Miller’s Last Flight, The Battle of the Hood and Bismarck: Sink the Bismarck! and The Battle of the Hood and Bismarck: Mighty Hood. Channel 5 had a ‘Heroes of World War Two Night’, and throughout, and still going as I write this, two instalments of The World At War every morning.

Had you been a German staying in Britain you might think this nation was disturbingly obsessed with the world’s last great conflict. At this time of year as well. Surely continually bringing it up on television will only rear another generation of boys who will sing ‘Two world wars and one world cup’ at football matches?

Yet these documentaries, particularly The World at War, bring out the inhumanity of warfare, while simultaneously stressing the need for it. They show how the Germans were not heartless megalomaniacs, explaining why Nazism was attractive to many.

They illustrate what a vain individual Churchill was, and that Montgomery wasn’t not loved by his men; that the USA really saved our bacon; that on the side of ‘Good’, we fought with an American army that was racially segregated, and with the Soviet Union, which was only marginally less murderous than Nazi Germany.

Most of all, these programmes teach us the value of heroism, a quality much needed in our own morbid, narcissistic times. Dare it be said too that it tells us that patriotism, rather than being the bogus symptom of an ‘imagined community’, is a necessary thing for people under attack.

  • Is it a bird, a plane – or a bore?

There is at present a new Superman movie in the pipeline. Called the Death of Superman, it will herald the Man of Steel’s long-awaited return to the big screen. And what a time to do it.

‘Now, more than ever, we need our heroes’, said Jim Hambrick, a collector of Superman memorabilia, in The Times (London) last week. ‘Since September 11 the appreciation for those who protect others has had a tremendous impact on [the image of] Superman, because he is directly associated with all that.’

I disagree. The last thing we need now is the return of that airborne social worker in fancy dress telling us how to live our lives. The Superman I remember from comics and films was a dull, pious man who went around telling people not to drink and smoke.

While one of his greatest foes was Nick O’Teen (surely coded anti-Irishness?), in Superman III, when he turns bad, the audience knows things are wrong because he is shown, gasp, drinking whiskey in a bar and making advances to a woman. Superman is the embodiment of Puritan America.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics

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