THE QUEEN'S recent gift of the Order of Merit to Cardinal Hume has raised once again the question of honours. Some may wonder what role honours have in Cool Britannia. Honours surely are out of date, gewgaws given by the Establishment to the Establishment.
Long before Cool Britannia was a glint in young Master Blair's eye during those long hours at public school, "the Establishment" recognised the need to make honours meaningful. It was the Queen's great grandfather, King Edward VII, who broadened a system which had for centuries given most honours to aristocrats, soldiers or civil servants.
Edward Vll had wanted an honour which would "reward in a special manner" people distinguished in "arts, sciences and literature". He told his first Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury: "I have always been so much impressed by the Prussian Order 'Pour le Write" which was, I believe, instituted originally by Frederick the Great." On the cross of the new Order would be only two words, "For Merit."
When Edward VII came to the throne in 1901 the award of almost all honours was subject to ministerial "advice". For centuries honours had been part of politics, so much so that Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria's first, Prime Minister, boasted: "I like the Garter; there is no damned merit in it."
IT WAS Edward VII's inspiration to see that a modem state needed to select men and women from outside the traditional spheres for honours that were not subject to political pressure. Lord Salisbury suggested that the new Order be confined to 24 members thereby making it an honour worth having.
Among early recipients were Lord Lister (scientist), John Morley (writer), WEH Lecky (historian), Holman Hunt (artist), Elgar (musician) and George Meredith (novelist). The first woman selected was the redoubtable Florence Nightingale as much for her work for India as for nursing. The OM quickly established itself while other honours came and went. The Order of St Patrick, the Order of the Indian Empire and the Star of India have become history. The OBE, George Cross and the Queen's Awards for Industry and for Export have arrived to general approval. The corruption surrounding the award of honours is considerably less than in the past, certainly when compared to that during the premierships of Lloyd George or Harold Wilson. The politicians' involvement remains and there are no plans to restrict this: it wouldn't be cool.
The OM has itself changed with time. Today OMs from the armed services have declined to vanishing point. The number of scientists, especially research scientists, has grown so that today there are eight in the Order. On the nonscientific side are: Joan Sutherland, Ernst Gombrich, Ninette de Valois, Lucien Freud, John Gielgud, Norman Foster, Owen Chadwick (the only other clergyman), Cecily Saunders, Michael Atiyah and Roy, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, (writer, pundit and retired Eurocrat).
The only other politician in the Order is Lady Thatcher. Her selection was as public recognition by the Queen for services rendered to the Crown and to the country. The same may be said for Cardinal Hume. The Cardinal has not advanced scientific research. He has not founded a ballet company, enchanted millions with his singing voice or written about art.
His honour is a public statement by the Queen of her respect and admiration not just for what he has done but for what he has been. He is an English gentleman who is also a Catholic Cardinal. He is the man who has translated teaching and pronouncements, often seen as "harsh" and "unfeeling" to modem English ears, into a vemacular which, if not acceptable, is at least understandable. To many nonCatholics he has become the acceptable face of Catholicism.
As others have pointed out, the Queen's gift of the OM to "my Cardinal" is also a recognition of and "thank you" to the English Catholic Church for helping to maintain England's Christian heritage. But it is also a gracious gift from a gracious Sovereign to a gracious man.