Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report


25. There is a case to be made against any substantial change to the honours system, and some of those who submitted evidence made it with force and eloquence. This chapter sets out some of these arguments for maintaining the existing arrangements.

26. When honours recognise truly distinguished service or outstanding achievement, they can inspire real enthusiasm, reinforce public pride in achievement, and "make the country feel good about itself" in the words of the Wilson Review.[14] This is particularly noticeable when honours strike a chord with local or regional loyalties. Graeme Allan of Whitley Bay in Tyne and Wear said that titles were "an established part of 'Britishness'" and a "precious heritage", citing an example that was clearly close to his heart:

    "In my native Tyneside, the joy and happiness when Newcastle Utd manager, Bobby Robson, was knighted was unbounded. Any attempt to deny honours to Geordie heroes would cause a backlash in Labour's North-East heartland, where football is regarded with religious zeal".[15]

27. Lord Hurd of Westwell drew a similar conclusion from a less prominent award:

    "Recently I listened to a discussion of the Monarchy on a local radio station which reached a climax when a young man described how he went to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE from the Prince of Wales. For the first time, he said he felt proud to be British. This reaction may seem unsophisticated, but in my experience it is widespread and too valuable to be ignored. For that reason I would favour retaining the different Orders in their present form".[16]

28. Lord Hurd also saw the value of the system's long pedigree, praising it as a "link with the country's past. The Honours system brings its recipients into a relationship with that past of which most are proud. Hence the importance of retaining the Queen as the fount of honour".[17] Similar views were expressed by Dr P J Galloway, the historian of several of the Orders, who argued that the power of the system rested on its coherence and antiquity. He considered that its foundations would be undermined if due respect was not paid to each part of the edifice:

    "The title of the Order of the British Empire is no more outdated than the titles of the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Bath, the Order of St Michael and St George or the Royal Victorian Order. These are historic names that emerged for good reason at particular moments in the nation's history … that those names are redolent of ages and concerns long past is not to their disgrace, and no ground for their abolition".[18]

29. Raphael Heydel-Mankoo, who has written extensively on honours matters, also identified a strong historical connection between the various parts of the UK honours system, and saw great value in continuity:

    "Prestige and romance are areas of fundamental importance to an honours system. We must remember that the senior honours are in fact orders of "chivalry". Names such as "The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle" serve as a reminder of the age of chivalry. We should be very wary of changing names of historic importance simply to satisfy perceived, and often transitory, political sensitivities. The British Empire is a historical reality".[19]

30. We were also told that there was little public demand for change to the honours system. Dr Galloway dismissed recent negative media comment, denied that the system's reputation had been diminished, and declared that "the United Kingdom honours system in general is quite free from controversy".[20] Several correspondents saw the low rate of refusal of honours as a sign of broad public acceptance.[21]

31. Several apparent practical and legal objections to change were also put to us. Dr Galloway pointed out that Letters Patent in 1917 declared that the Order of the British Empire should be "called and known forever after" by that name, and "by no other designation". He also suggests that the creation of a completely new Order with a different name would hurt the feelings of the 90,000 living members of the Empire Order who would "find themselves members of a derided, devalued and dying Order, which might, by virtue of becoming obsolete or redundant, become the object of ridicule and amusement before disappearing into complete obscurity".[22]

32. The size and structure of the system were robustly defended. Although there is a perception that the United Kingdom system is elaborate and extensive, we heard evidence from Guy Stair Sainty, General Editor of Burke's Peerage and Baronetage World Orders of Knighthood, that the UK was a model of restraint compared with France, which makes "four times as many awards as Great Britain in any one year" or Italy, whose "Order of Work" has no fewer than 850,000 living members. There are, according to Mr Sainty, 20,000 additions to the Italian Order every year, compared with a grand total of 3000 per annum on British lists.[23] The Wilson Review also examined the case against multi-level awards such as the MBE, OBE and CBE, but concluded that it was necessary to recognise different levels of contribution and that UK practice was not out of line with those in other countries.

33. We were also warned against any reform that might reduce the capacity of the state to use the honours system in its diplomatic dealings with foreign countries. R M McKeag said there was often concern in the Republic of Ireland on the arrival of important visiting dignitaries:

    "[The Republic] is one of the few countries in the world that lacks an honours system. At present this is proving something of an embarrassment to the Irish government. How should visiting heads of state and other dignitaries be honoured? How should outstanding citizens have their contributions recognised? At present the Provost of Trinity College is asked to award an honorary doctorate or the Lord Mayor of Dublin is asked to present the freedom of the city. I understand that both are beginning to baulk at bailing out the state".[24]

34. Thus the current system is seen by its defenders as dignified, soundly based on history and inspiring widespread enthusiasm. Ill-considered change, they believe, would irretrievably damage a precious part of national life. For these witnesses, continuity is almost all.

14   Ibid para 14 Back

15   HON 56 Back

16   HON 73 Back

17   Ibid. Back

18   HON 61 Back

19   HON 54 Back

20   HON 61 Back

21   HON 68 Back

22   HON 61 Back

23   HON 57 Back

24   HON 52 Back

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