Select Committee on Public Administration Written Evidence

Memorandum by Republic: Campaign for an Elected Head of State (HON 13)


  Republic is strongly opposed to the monarchy because:

    (a)  It denies the British people the right to choose their Head of State.

    (b)  It devalues our system of government (eg via the Crown Prerogative powers and the Privy Council).

    (c)  It corrodes and diminishes our society (eg by demanding deference to the royal family and underpinning our deeply ingrained class system).

  Republic's full arguments for an elected Head of State are laid out in the booklet attached with this submission: Ending the Royal Farce (August 2003).

  Not surprisingly, therefore, Republic cannot support an honours system presided over by an unelected Head of State. In this system the "supreme moment of glory" comes when a person whose qualifications are merely to have been born into a particular family deigns to confer awards on hundreds of British "subjects" who have been infantilised into believing in fairytale princes and princesses. It is scandalous that in the 21st century many British people, including some of extraordinary achievement, are awarded honours by an elderly lady of no special distinction who inherited her position as Head of State and who in English law "can do no wrong" (see the enclosed commentary on the Royal Prerogative paper from Sir Hadyn Phillips). This is a travesty of propriety and democracy.


  It was recently revealed that a significant number of Britons have refused honours over the last 40 or 50 years, that the awards procedure is Byzantine and secretive, and that awards may be conferred or withheld for questionable reasons. Subsequent debate in the media has demonstrated widespread dissatisfaction with the honours system, even among those who have accepted honours.

  Republic appreciates that refusing honours does not necessarily signify an anti-monarchist or republican stance. The motives for refusing honours are clearly very varied: eg waiting for "a better (ie higher) honour"; rebelliousness, "bolshieness" or hostility to the principle of honours; anti-Labour or anti-Conservative sentiment—depending on the "colour" of the government of the day; unease about having the British Empire in the name of some awards; horror of the snobbery often associated with honours; dissatisfaction with awards made to or withheld from certain people in the past; anger at the monarch's award of honours to other members of the royal family and the royal household. The motives for accepting honours obviously also vary: eg very many people may well feel proud to be "recognised"; some people opposed to personal honours may feel obliged to accept honours so as to gain "recognition" for their profession, business, or leisure-time activity; some sons or daughters of immigrants may accept honours to please their ageing parents who believe that honours mean "acceptance".


  Republic opposes the honours system in its present form because:

    (a)  The monarch's central role in the system is viewed with cynicism and suspicion by many Britons who object to the unmerited position of unelected and award-laden royals standing at the pinnacle of our allegedly democratic society.

    (b)  The system incorporates a fatal internal contradiction: on the one hand it pays lip service to the idea of rewarding merit in a society of equals; on the other hand it is inextricably intertwined with an institution based on unmerited privilege and wealth ie the monarchy. It highlights the inescapable incompatibility of monarchy and democracy.

    (c)  The hierarchy of awards (eg knighthoods to toffs, MBEs to dustmen) perpetuates Britain's divisive class-ridden social structure: this hierarchical system is presided over by an unelected monarch who personifies and validates the elitism and class divisions which corrode and debase our society.

    (d)  The system is characterised by Ruritanian ritual, monarchist mumbo jumbo, and royalist flim-flam inappropriate to a modern democratic country eg the king or queen "dubs" knights by tapping their shoulders with a sword.

    (e)  The unelected Head of State confers honours, usually of the highest rank, on his or her relatives for doing nothing—the most blatant form of corruption (nepotism) in British public life.

    (f)  The system exemplifies and publicly re-inforces the unhealthy symbiotic relationship between the prime minister and the unelected Head of State ie enabling both parties to share the power and the glory while avoiding any attributable responsibility or personal accountability (the sovereign as "fount of honour" acting on the advice of the prime minister).

    (g)  The role played by the prime minister is seen to be an exploitation of the system for purposes of political "spin"and "social engineering".

    (h)  Many awards appear to have been made in exchange for substantial donations to political parties.

    (i)  The system is operated in a secretive way which facilitates manipulation by civil servants and politicians with questionable motives and objectives eg giving an award to a relatively unsuccessful tennis star "to add interest" to a lacklustre new year's honours list.

    (j)  Some people are induced to shy away from innovative or unconventional thinking and action, speaking up on controversial subjects, or "whistle-blowing"—for fear that they may jeopardise their chances of an honour.

    (k)  In certain public sector spheres (eg the civil service) disproportionate numbers of honours are awarded automatically on the principle of "buggin's turn".

    (l)  Many honours are awarded to people merely for doing jobs they are paid to do rather than for extraordinary or exceptional achievement.

    (m)  Honours are awarded to people who have already been rewarded in terms of personal wealth and recognition beyond the wildest dreams of most Britons eg showbusiness and sports celebrities.

    (n)  There are unacceptable anomalies in the system eg Sir John Jones's wife may be styled Lady Jones (though she has merited no award in her own right), while the wife of Mr John Jones MBE may not be referred to as Mrs Jones MBE; a husband derives no title from being married to a Dame.

    (o)  Many of the honours have names which are out of date or even archaic, with some harking back to an aristocratic pecking order which is "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" to the average Briton eg Officer in The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE); Knight in The Most Noble Order of the Garter (KG); Knight in The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (KT); Knight Grand Cross in The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (GCB); Lieutenant in The Royal Victorian Order (LVO); Knight (or Dame) Grand Cross in The Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (GCMG); earldoms, viscountcies, baronies.



  In a British republic the honours system would be substantially simplified and slimmed down; the awards procedure would be completely transparent and based on clear criteria of exceptional public service; and the honours would not involve the use of bogus aristocratic titles or references to archaic, outdated, or non-existent institutions eg the British Empire. The stultifying regalia and trappings of monarchy—with their connotations of elitism, unearned privilege, unmerited wealth, and undeserved deference from the "lower orders"—would be swept away. The elected Head of State would award national honours to British citizens in an appropriately solemn ceremony symbolising Britain's belief in representative democracy.

Republic's Proposals for Immediate Reform

    (a) All the existing honours will be abolished. Those people already in receipt of honours may retain them as a courtesy if they wish, but all existing awards—notably those involving titles such as lord, duke, earl, viscount, baron, knight—will cease to be officially recognised.

    (b) A small Honours Office will be established. This will comprise: an independent panel of non-government, part-time experts in a range of fields (eg science, the armed forces, the police and the emergency services); a distinguished non-government chair of the panel; and full-time civil service support staff accountable to the chair. The independent panel and chair will be appointed by a House of Commons committee over which no party has overall control and over which the prime minister and the government have no influence. No civil servants or other people involved in running the present honours system will be allowed to work in or for the Honours Office: it is essential that new principles and a completely new mindset be brought to bear within the new system. The vetting of proposed awards will be done by the panel on the basis of evidence and references checked and scrutinised by the civil servants—but the civil servants will not be able to eliminate (or insert) names without reference to the panel. The agreed list of proposed awards will go for final approval to a small all-party House of Commons committee.

    (c) New honours will be awarded to far fewer people than at present, perhaps up to 50 or 100 per annum, and will be awarded only for extraordinary achievement, very exceptional public service (ie acting above and beyond the call of duty), and remarkable feats of bravery or courage.

    (d) The criteria for honours and the procedure for awarding honours will be widely publicised in advance of the first new awards being considered. Absolute transparency, objectivity and fairness will be paramount. The new honours will be national awards conferred in line with well understood and respected democratic procedures. Any citizen will be able to nominate another citizen for an award in accordance with the published criteria. Nominations will need to be supported by relevant evidence and references which will be subjected to independent scrutiny.

    (e) Neither the monarch, the monarch's relatives, nor the prime minister will be involved at any stage in awarding honours. The monarch will not be allowed to make awards to relatives, members of the royal household, or any other people. Neither the prime minister nor other politicians will be allowed to make awards "for political services", for donations to party funds, or for any other reason. Neither the government nor anyone else will have the power to use the national honours system to confer a higher social title or status upon any individual.

    (f) No honours will be given as an automatic reward for doing one's paid job. In a civilised, humane, democratic country all decent citizens should be accorded equal respect and enjoy equal social status—regardless of how modest or otherwise their job or professional activity may be.

    (g) No honours will be given simply as recognition of prominence, fame or celebrity.

    (h) No honours will be given which duplicate awards or financial rewards already received for the same achievement eg showbusiness or sporting awards, international awards or prizes, very substantial financial rewards.

    (i) The new awards will have names such as Great Britain Public Service Award, Great Britain Bravery Award, and Great Britain Achievement Award.

    (j) The workings of the Honours Office and indeed the whole new honours system will be reviewed and scrutinised on a regular basis by the Public Administration and Public Accounts Select Committees to ensure that everything is above board and is in no way tarnished by financial or other irregularity.

    (k) The awards ceremony will be held with all due solemnity at the House of Commons, perhaps three times a year, with the Speaker conferring the awards and taking tea with those honoured on the Terrace or in the Speaker's residence. The honours will be awarded by the Speaker on behalf of Parliament and the British people rather than by a remote and elitist billionaire who believes she was anointed Head of State by God—a God whose existence is not acknowledged by most British people. The Speaker will thus personify a democratic honours system with a human face, and the honours system will achieve a level of openness and ceremonial style of which every British citizen can be proud.


  The unelected and unaccountable successor & beneficiary of William the Conqueror & Expropriator, aka Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland & Northern Ireland or Queen Elizabeth II of England & Wales, exercises considerable power and political influence by eg chairing the Privy Council, "warning and advising" the government in weekly unminuted audiences with the Prime Minister, and actually choosing the Prime Minister in the event of a close-run general election. She can also award existing or invented titles and honours to her husband and children: the nepotistic icing on the hereditary cake!

  But the virtually unlimited powers exercised by British monarchs in earlier centuries have been substantially handed down by convention, precedent & unwritten rules to government ministers, notably to the Prime Minister. Until recently a veil of mystery has surrounded these ancient Crown Prerogative Powers which can be exercised entirely without Parliamentary accountability.

  On 20 October 2003, for the first time in history, a list of the government's sweeping prerogative powers was published in response to a demand by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC): see the list overleaf. Over the years the British government has always refused to even say what the prerogative powers were: so much for open government, freedom of information, and democracy!

  The veil of mystery surrounding the prerogative powers has still not been completely torn away, however. The paper submitted by the government to the Public Administration Select Committee asserts that: "the exact limits of the prerogative cannot be categorically defined"; "there is no single accepted definition of the prerogative"; and "there is no exhaustive list of prerogative powers". Here's a pretty state of things!

  We in Republic believe that:

    —  it should be a basic constitutional principle that the British people be given unequivocal information on who has what powers, where those powers come from, and what democratic accountability is associated with those powers;

    —  the Head of State should be subject to the Law of the Land and be equal in the eyes of the Law like any other citizen;

    —  the powers currently exercised directly by the monarch—and the royal prerogative powers exercised by ministers in the name of the Crown—should all be subject to Parliamentary accountability;

    —  the hereditary British monarchy, with its King or Queen "who can do no wrong", should be replaced by a British republic and an elected Head of State who is not above the law.


  [This list was supplied to the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) by Sir Hadyn Phillips, permanent secretary to the Department of Constitutional Affairs, and was released to the press by the PASC on 20 October 2003.]


  Although this is the area in which legislation has increasingly been introduced thereby limiting the extent of the prerogative, some significant aspects of the prerogative survive in the area of domestic affairs.

These include:

    —  the appointment and dismissal of Ministers;

    —  the summoning, prorogation and dissolution of Parliament;

    —  royal assent to Bills;

    —  the appointment and regulation of the civil service;

    —  the commissioning of officers in the armed forces;

    —  directing the disposition of the armed forces in the UK;

    —  the appointment of Queen's Counsel;

    —  the prerogative of mercy. (This no longer saves condemned men from the scaffold but it is still used eg to remedy errors in sentence calculation);

    —  the issue and withdrawal of UK passports;

    —  the granting of honours;

    —  the creation of corporations by Charter;

    —  the King (and Queen) can do no wrong (for example the Queen cannot be prosecuted in her own courts).


  The conduct of foreign affairs remains very reliant on the exercise of prerogative powers. Parliament and the courts have perhaps tended to accept that this is an area where the Crown needs flexibility in order to act effectively and handle novel situations.

  The main prerogative powers in this area include:

    —  the making of treaties;

    —  the declaration of war;

    —  the deployment of the armed forces on operations overseas;

    —  the recognition of foreign states;

    —  the accreditation and reception of diplomats.

November 2003

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