Memorandum by Dr P J Galloway (HON 61)
(a) Does the United Kingdom need an honours
system at all?
(b) Do we need as many honours as we have
now (3,000 per year)?
(c) Could we make do with, say, 10 or 100
new honours each year?
(a) Yes. The honours system is the most
public way in which the state can express its gratitude to the
many thousands of its citizens whose exceptional service has made
a significant contribution to the life of this nation.
(b) Yes. It enables widespread recognition
of diverse services from the lowest to the highest and in every
part of the nation. The comparatively large number of honours
conferred raises public awareness of the system and gives the
list popular and nationwide interest.
(c) No. To reduce the annual number of conferred
honours to such a small number would: (i) lead to a situation
in which honours were restricted to a very small elite and therefore
almost entirely removed from public gaze and public appreciation,
and (ii) remove the possibility of recognising equally valuable
service at lower levels of responsibility.
What should be done about the peerage in light
of, among other developments, the present proposals to remove
all hereditary peers from the House of Lords?
The answer is dependent upon (a) the continuing
process of reform of the House of Lords, and (b) the desirability
of retaining peerages as honours.
There is a strong argument for disconnecting
the peerage from membership of the upper chamber, transforming
the latter into an elected or nominated "senate" This
accomplished, a peerage would be disconnected from the legislature
and become solely a high honour. The present situation is a hybrid:
some peers have had the dignity conferred upon them as an honour,
and some have received it to enable them to become working members
of the upper chamber of Parliament. Completely divorcing the peerage
from membership of the upper house would arguably remove the most
substantial objection to the conferral of hereditary peerages,
since, even now, the creation of a hereditary peerage no longer
creates a line of potential hereditary legislators.
At present all life peerages are created in
the rank of baron or baroness; this is in accordance with the
provisions of the Life Peerage Act 1958. If it is desired to keep
the link between the peerage and the House of Lords, a distinction
could be made between the rank of baron or baroness and the higher
titles: viscount, earl, marquess and duke. The latter four being
created purely as honours with no right to a seat in the House
of Lords. Such titles would be created for life or, in exceptional
cases, they might be hereditary; it would no longer matter.
In relation to the machinery of the honours system,
what lessons may be learned from the experience of other countries?
I am not experienced enough with the ways of
other honours systems to make a reliable comparison. As a general
rule, the more checks and balances there are, the better the chances
of the system honouring only the best candidates.
The theory of an honours commission entirely
separate from the executive branch of government (as practised
in Canada and Australia) might be advanced as an attractive alternative
to the present machinery, but the attractiveness is probably more
apparent than real. I am not convinced that its members would
be any more impartial than are the members of the existing honours
committees. Much depends (a) on the process by which these "selectors"
are themselves selected, and (b) the extent to which they can
think objectively, and recogniseand put asideany
personal bias during the course of the selection process.
If there is to be a future for the honours system,
what should its main function beto recognise distinction
in particular fields, to reward service, to pay tribute to those
who best represent the nation's values, or something else?
All these considerations are factors in determining
whether an honour should be conferred. However, the word "reward"
should not be used. Honours do not represent reward for, but recognition
ofservice, achievement distinction, reputation, occasionally
triumph in the face of adversity. At its best it is the way in
which the state can express its recognition of outstanding serviceservice
that can be rendered as much by the humblest as by the highest.
Can any honours system realistically reflect all
of the above?
If the machinery is sound and efficient, yes
it can. The number and range of United Kingdom honours is such
that the system can recognise and accommodate a diversity of type
and level of service.
Are the criteria for awards well enough known
and properly understood?
General principles are one thing; lists of specific
criteria are another. It would be a mistake to publish detailed
criteria for awards. Publishing such regulations could lead to
the risk that people will measure their personal achievements
against such lists, consider that they have reached the threshold
and self-nominate, either directly or through the services of
another. Those individuals whose service has been unquestionable
may feel disappointed that their names have not been included
in an Honours List. For the one person who is honoured, there
are many others who have also performed a lifetime of impeccable
service but who have received no national honour. This is because
an honour of whatever level, is intended to recognise, not the
diligence with which a duty is performed, but a level of service
that is above and beyond the call of duty. What is needed is a
general understanding that the conferral of an honour requires
service that is exceptional.
Is the award of honours bound to be subjective'an
art rather than a science' as the Wilson Review puts it?
Given that (i) the process of honouring an individual
requires people to assess and judge the work of other people,
and (ii) that there will be something in each recommendation that
makes their service incomparably unique, scientific precision
is impossible, and an element of subjectivity cannot be entirely
Nothing in humanity is perfect, and there is
no form of machinery to ensure that the system of selection is
flawless. The public nominations system relies partly on the spirit
of altruism and effort; in this case the selfless desire to nominate
a person for an honour that the nominator may not haveand
may never have. In the case of some people this will be done with
enthusiasm and a laudably selfless desire to see that recognition
is given where it is due. Unfortunately, attitudes can be swayed
by the powerful emotions of envy and jealousy, which can bring
a different attitude into play. No system of nomination or recommendation
can entirely exclude this flaw in human nature.
The honours committees themselves cannot and
should not institute systematic searches for candidates, although
members can suggest names for consideration. Mostly they can only
make a decision on the papers set before them. They cannot cause
every person who deserves an honour to get one; their responsibility
is to ensure that every person who receives an honour deserves
(a) What role should be played in the honours
system by peer groups, professional, business and trade union
bodies and academic institutions?
(b) Should they be asked to provide, monitor
and keep up to date criteria used in recommending honours?
(a) They have a significant role. They should
know their own, and therefore be well placed to put forward only
the most suitable names. But their contribution to the process
should not be decisive in the conferral of honours. Their task
is to recommend candidates for honours, not to guarantee authoritatively
that honours will be forthcoming for those that they have recommended,
and not to expect that their recommendations will necessarily
be accepted. It should be noted that many of these organisations
have their own internal system of honouring achievement.
(b) This depends partly on the extent to
which such diverse bodies can be relied upon to identify the most
suitable names. As they have no formal role in the selection process,
their criteria can perhaps remain a matter for their own internal
processes. Were they to be published or supplied to the Ceremonial
Secretariat, there is a risk that that office would become a rubber
stamp for names already selected by other, perhaps less rigorous,
processes. In the allocation of the honours a broad national overview
is presently in place, and the recommendations of particular interest
groups should not carry overwhelming weight.
Would there be any advantage in applying to honours
selection some of the merit criteria now applied in appointment
to public bodies?
The conferral of an honour is designed to recognise
exceptional service, sometimes over a lifetime. Although I have
no experience of the appointment process to public bodies, I suspect
that merit is less important than qualification to perform a particular
task and to contribute constructively to debate. I would not like
to think that membership of a public body is an honour for services
What would be the advantages and disadvantages
of restricting honours to those who do voluntary work, either
full-time or part-time?
(i) I can see no advantage in restricting
honours to those who do voluntary work, although there is usually
a laudable element of self-sacrifice in voluntary work, and that
can be an influential factor. However, in considering honours
for voluntary work, a distinction should be made between two different
types of volunteer. There are those who do not need to undertake
paid employment, either because of inherited wealth or because
of other substantial private income. Their time is their own and,
committed though they are, they can do voluntary work almost as
a hobby. Then there are the volunteers who have no choice but
to do paid employment, and whose voluntary work can be done only
at the end of a working day or at weekends. In this latter group
there is clearly a greater element of effort and personal sacrifice.
If there is too much concentration on honouring the "volunteer"
without some discrimination between these two groups, those who
struggle to fit their voluntary work into the limited gaps between
the requirements of their paid employment could be disadvantaged.
It should also be noted that many volunteers can and do claim
expenses for their voluntary work; therefore they do not suffer
financial loss as might have been the case in previous years.
(ii) Restricting honours entirely to volunteers
would be a pointless narrowing of the scope of the honours system.
It would be extraordinary to award honours only to voluntary workers
at the expense of those who work full-time in the essential services
(education, health, police, fire services, etc) and those who
contribute to the wealth of the nation. As in my answer to Question
6, what should be looked for is exceptional service, and that
can be sought and found in both the voluntary and the paid sectors.
The Wilson Review proposes that "n the interests
of equity there should be equal access to honours for all UK citizens."
How could this best be achieved?
Since the introduction of the public nominations
system, equal access is a theoretical fact. Anyone may nominate
anyone. Thereafter the present system is designed to ensure that
only the best are chosen, and that is achieved partly by careful
selection and partly by the limitation of numerical quotas, eg
a statutory maximum (GBE, KBE, CBE) or an annual allocation (OBE,
MBE). In the words of W S Gilbert: "When everyone is somebody,
then no-one's anybody." Any thought of proportional representation
or the assigning of quotas to particular groups would seriously
undermine the clear principle of selecting only the best candidates;
it would also introduce an undesirable note of segregation, and
the even more undesirable possibility of different standards or
criteria for different groups.
(a) Are the title, and the concept, of an
"Order of the British Empire" now outdated, as the Wilson
(b) If this is the case, what should replace
the old Orderthe Order of Britain, the Order of the United
Kingdom or some other name?
(c) Should titles such as "Dame"
and "Sir", "Lord", "Lady", "Baron"
etc be abolished?
(a) 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. The title of the Order of the British Empire emerged
in 1916-17 partly in recognition of the considerable contribution
made by troops from all parts of the empire in the 1914-18 war.
Changing the name of the Order of the British
Empire has surfaced from time to time. It was given very serious
consideration in the period 1962-64, at the height of the process
of dismantling the empire, and I suspect that there were more
objections to the name of the Order in the 1960s than there are
today. At that time some thought the name "Order of the British
Empire" was an obsolete embarrassment, a relic of an age
that had passed, but the succeeding age has itself passed, and
the march of time is serving the Order well. Whereas name "Order
of the British Empire" was once thought to be anachronistic,
it is gradually achieving the status of a charming and honoured
historical survival, and the further the British Empire recedes
into the sands of time, the less embarrassed people will feel
in referring to it. By 2017 when the Order of the British Empire
celebrates its one-hundredth birthday, its name will have no more
meaning than the name of the Order of the Batha reference
to the obsolete mediaeval rite of purification before admission
The name of the Order of the British Empire
may offend the sensitivities of those who are emotionally critical
of certain aspects of the empire, but to dismiss the honour simply
because it bears an historic designation is to distort reality.
Hostile attitudes seem to supposewronglythat the
Order is a representative icon mourning a vanished imperial dream.
A more pragmatic view would depict the Order for what it is: a
contemporary honour for merit that, for the best of reasons, bears
a particular historic designation.
In the years 1957-60 the membership of the Order
raised £100,000 to fund the creation of a Chapel of the Order
of the British Empire in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral. The
chapel is decorated with representations of the insignia of the
Order, and with symbols of the continents and hemispheres, emblems
of the countries of the Commonwealth and representative images
of the various forms of service given by members. Every four years
more than 2,500 members of the Order gather in the cathedral for
a service of dedication. Many hundreds of individuals who accept
appointment to the Order each year feel a great sense of pride
at belonging to it. Those who find its name objectionable might
be very vocal but they are few in number, and clearly there is
no widespread opposition to the name of the Order. If a few individuals
choose to decline to accept an honour because they find its name
objectionable, that is a matter entirely for their own conscience.
In an age when religious symbols are less valued
and respected than formerly, similar objections might be raised
to the use of two Christian saints in the name of the Order of
St Michael and St George. And why continue to call the Victoria
Cross by that name when its founder has been dead for more than
a century? Why not be "contemporary" and call it the
Elizabeth Cross, and change it again to the Charles Cross in due
course? The question is rhetorical because the answer is obvious;
long usage and distinguished recipients have burnished the name
of the honour. The same principle applies as much to the MBE as
to the VC.
A glance at other European national honours
will disclose a variety of beautifully historic names: the Order
of the Falcon (Iceland), the Order of the Seraphim and the Order
of the Northern Star (Sweden), the Order of the White Rose and
the Order of the Holy Lamb (Finland), the Order of the Elephant
and the Order of the Dannebrog (Denmark), the Order of Vytautas
the Great (Lithuania), the Order of the Three Stars (Latvia),
the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana (Estonia), the Order of
the Golden Lion (Luxembourg), the Order of the Oak Crown and the
Order of the Dutch Lion (Netherlands), the Order of Charles the
Holy (Monaco), the Order of the White Lion (Czech Republic), the
Order of the Golden Spur (Vatican City State), the Order of Nemanje
and the Order of Nyegosh (Serbia and Montenegro), the Grand Order
of Queen Jelena and the Grand Order of King Peter Kresimir IV
(Croatia), the Order of the Phoenix and the Order of the Redeemer
(Greece), the Order of the White Eagle (Poland), the Order of
Prince Yaroslav the Wise and the Order of Princess Ohla (Ukraine),
the Order of St James and the Sword (Portugal) and the Order of
the Golden Fleece (Spain). Among the more exotic is the Order
of Madara's Horseman (Bulgaria), named after an eighth century
rock relief cut into the slope of a plateau in the vicinity of
Kaspichan in north-east Bulgaria.
The names of many European national honours
were chosen to evoke the memory of some icon of national greatness,
and to reflect the best aspirations and intentions of the age
in which they were created. That those names are redolent of ages
and concerns long past is not to their disgrace, and no ground
for their abolition.
(b) Since the 1960s, suggestions have been
made from time to time that objections to the name of the Order
of the British Empire could be met simply by changing the name
of the Order. Apart from the reasoning outlined in section (a)
immediately above, this is impractical. The Letters Patent of
1917 declared that the Order should be "called and known
forever hereafter" as The Order of the British Empire. The
first Statute reiterates the title and states that the Order shall
be known "by no other designation". Although both Letters
Patent and Statutes could in theory be amended, to do so would
be to overrule the most explicit intentions and instructions of
the founders. To change both the name and, inevitably, the insignia
(with its motto "For God and the Empire"), would change
the Order beyond recognition and effectively create a new Order.
The creation of a new Order with a different
name would not be the solution to a "problem" but the
progenitor of a new set of problems. Some thought should be given
to the feelings of the approximately 90,000 living members of
the Order of the British Empire, and that includes many in the
Commonwealth, particularly Australia and New Zealand, who were
pleased to accept the honour and proud to wear the insignia. The
Order of the British Empire is still used by several independent
Commonwealth nations. The Order is also widely used by the Foreign
Office and there are many foreign nationals who are honorary MBEs,
OBEs, CBEs, etcand who are similarly proud to accept the
honour. They would find themselves members of a derided, devalued
and dying Order, which might, by virtue of being declared obsolete
or redundant, become the object of ridicule and amusement before
disappearing into complete obscurity.
It should also be noted that the a number of
Commonwealth countries still happily make recommendations for
the Order of the British Empire, and therefore its future is not
entirely a matter for the United Kingdom government.
The Order of the British Empire is by far the
most widely used of any of the United Kingdom honours, and it
has by far the largest membership. To substitute a new Order would
be possible, but the resulting upheaval would be out of all proportion
to any benefits. It took a generation for the Order of the British
Empire to rise in public esteem during the 1920s and 1930s. The
tiny number of refusals today compares very favourably with the
very large number of refusals in the early 1920s when the Order
was dismissed as an honour that was easily obtained, and seen
as a very poor substitute for the older Orders. That is a pattern
likely to be repeated with the creation of a new Order. Is it
really worthwhile to spend two generations or more nursing the
wounded feelings of the discontinued Order while trying to establish
the reputation of its replacement?
It would not be that easy to find a generally
acceptable name for a new Order. "The Order of Britain",
"the Order of British Excellence" and "the Order
of the United Kingdom" are suggested as acceptable alternatives.
But in these devolutionary days, for how much longer will the
words "Britain" and "United Kingdom" be acceptable?
Furthermore the word "Britain" technically excludes
Northern Ireland, and to adopt it as the title of a new Order
might raise additional acceptability issues in the province. In
choosing a title for an honour, it is important to take a very
long view, and not to make changes without evidence of substantial
and widespread demand. Unless a new Order is given a bland and
descriptively utilitarian designation, it could face the prospect
of obsolescence in forty or fifty years.
No sovereign or government would now institute
a new honour and give it the name "Garter", "Thistle",
"Bath", "St Michael and St George" or "Victorian",
but because of long usagecenturies in most casesthese
Orders have come to be accepted and respected for the high quality
of their membership. Although it is the newest of the United Kingdom
Orders, the same is true of the Order of the British Empire. It
is gradually acquiring the patina of venerability through its
long history and wide use. But being only eighty-seven, it is
still comparatively young in the world of honours, and no substantial
argument has been presented to justify the erasure of the long
history of service to the nation that its name encompasses. There
is no good reason why the name of this Order in particular should
be subjected to scrupulous logic. It is the most well known, most
well used and most popular part of the United Kingdom honours
system. The passing of time will be kind to the name of the Order
of the British Empire; it should be left well alone.
(c) The titles of "Lord", "Lady",
"Sir" and "Dame" give pleasure to those who
have them, and if anything has broken down the class divisions
of previous ages, it is seen in the larger number of citizens
who now have them, including those from ethnic minorities.
Such titles have been part and parcel of the
history of United Kingdom for centuries, although they did not
translate to the "new" world. Knights and Dames were
added to the Order of Australia in 1976-86 and to the Order of
Merit of New Zealand in 1996-2000. In each case they were abandoned
on a change of government for ideological reasons. Titles are
familiar and acceptable aspects of the honours system in the United
Kingdom and do not seem to arouse hostility. The days are well
past when they were indicators of social superiority, and when
their holders could expect automatic deference. They are now no
more than convenient prefixes, indicating that the holder is the
recipient of a "higher" honour, and in the egalitarian
society of today I doubt that they still command the obeisance
that would have been instinctively given by former generations.
They are therefore quite harmless.
Is it appropriate that Privy Counsellors should
continue to be given the prefix "Right Honourable"?
Barons, Viscounts and Earls are also "Right
Honourable" [Marquesses are "Most Honourable" and
Dukes are "Most Noble"]. The Lord Mayors of London,
Westminster, Bristol, York, Cardiff and Belfast and the Lord Provosts
of Edinburgh and Glasgow are also styled "Right Honourable",
as are the remaining members of the Privy Council of Northern
Ireland. Members of the Canadian Privy Council are styled "Honourable".
What is the objection to a style that indicates membership of
a high council whose members are in theory confidential advisers
to the Sovereign?
Some countries have considered creating single
categories of honours, with no divisions into classes or ranks.
Would this be a helpful move, or is it inevitable that, to reflect
different levels of achievement and contribution, various levels
of honours are required?
The answer is contained within the question.
A diversity of honours enables the recognition of a diversity
of service. The Order of Canada was founded as a one-class honour
in 1967. It began with the single grade of Companion and with
an accompanying Medal of Service. Experience proved that this
was just too limited. In 1972 the Medal of Service was deleted
and replaced by the grade of Officer, and a third grade entitled
Member was created. The Order of Canada has remained unchanged
since that date and flourished at the pinnacle of Canadian honours.
The federal honours system has been further augmented by the creation
of the Order of Military Merit (1972) and the Order of Merit of
the Police Forces (2000), both also of three classes. Federal
honours have been supplemented by the institution of provincial
honours: L'Ordre National du Quebec (1984), the Saskatchewan Order
of Merit (1985), the Order of Ontario (1986), the Order of British
Columbia (1989), the Alberta Order of Excellence (1993), the Order
of Prince Edward Island (1996), the Order of Manitoba (1999),
the Order of New Brunswick (2000), and the Order of Nova Scotia
(2001). The Yukon Territory in the far north of Canada has now
established the Order of Polaris for bush pilots who have given
outstanding service to the northern territories.
The pattern of the federal Canadian honours
was followed in 1975 by the Order of Australia which has three
classes (Companion, Officer and Member) and accompanying "Medal
of the Order of Australia."
New Zealand established a one-class honourthe
Queen's Service Order (QSO) in 1975 accompanied by the Queen's
Service Medal. In 1987 a further addition was made by the creation
of the one-class Order of New Zealand (roughly equivalent to the
Order of the Garter). With the discontinuation of recommendations
for United Kingdom honours, the New Zealand government established
the five-class Order of Merit of New Zealand in 1996, in effect
to replace the Order of the British Empire.
The multi-class Order is a standard pattern
throughout mainland Europe. For example: the Legion of Honour
and the National Order of Merit (France) are both five-class Orders,
as are the Orders of Leopold and Leopold II (Belgium), the Order
of the Dannebrog (Denmark), the Order of the White Rose (Finland),
the Order of Orange-Nassau (Netherlands), the Order of the Oak
Crown (Luxemburg), the Order of Charles III (Spain), the Order
of the Tower and the Sword (Portugal), and the Order of Merit
(Italy). The Order of St Olaf (Norway) has three classes, subdivided
into five grades. The Order of Merit (Germany) has three classes
sub-divided into eight grades. The Decoration of Honour for Merit
(Austria) has five classes, subdivided into ten grades. The United
Kingdom is "in line" with Europe on the question of
honours, and this in turn makes the exchange of decorations during
state visits and heads of government visits a relatively uncomplicated
The present system is also very adept at providing
a means of "promotion". Miss Jones can be honoured with
an MBE for 20 years of exceptional service. If she gives a further
15 or 20 years of the same exceptional service she can be promoted
to OBE. If the honours system were to consist of a single classless
honour Miss Jones would probably have to wait until she was at
the end of her service.
The present range of United Kingdom honours
contains a broad range of history, diversity and colour. While
we do have single-class honours (the Orders of the Garter, the
Thistle, Merit and the Companions of Honour) these are very high-ranking
honours with very small memberships. If the entire United Kingdom
honours system was to be reduced to a single honour with a single
grade and a utilitarian title, eg 90,000 people with no more than
"MSA" ("Meritorious Service Award") after
their names, it would I suggest sound and look quite dull. Simplicity
is not always a virtue and a single one-class honour would be
both inflexible and impractical.
What changes might be made to the nominations
process to improve the diversity of honours? For instance, should
there be an increase in the proportion of women and minority ethnic
people on the Honours Committee?
I do not know the composition of the honours
committees, but is there any reason to suspect that they fulfill
their duty with anything other than diligence and impartiality,
and that their membership consists of people other than those
with the broadest experience of the various specialist fields?
Members should not, in the normal course of events, personally
nominate candidates for honours, nor should they come as delegates
from their professions or their groups, bringing with them the
names of candidates for honours. Their responsibility is to examine
the credentials of the names submitted to them. The inclusion
of more women and more ethnic minority people on the honours committees
sounds attractive and of course such people should be included,
but it needs to be made quite clear to them on appointment that
they are not there as delegates or representatives of their interest
groups. I imagine that in many cases committee members will be
unaware (ie unable to tell from the papers in front of them) of
whether candidates are from the ethnic minorities. What is required
is a nationwide initiative to bring about the submission of many
more good names from these groups.
What are the effects, if any, of the honours system
on public administration in the UK? Is it a motivating or a demotivating
(a) No more, no less than on any other profession.
(b) I find it difficult to believe that
anyone would join any branch of the state service, motivated by
a desire eventually to receive an honour. Nor do I believe that
the remote prospect of an honour is enough to keep anyone in low-
or under-paid employment
Is it fair that civil servants, diplomats and
those in the armed forces have a much better chance of getting
an honour than other people?
Members of the civil service, the diplomatic
service and the armed forces play a significant role in ordering
and defending the life and reputation of this nation, and in principle
I have no difficulty with a higher proportion of honours going
to state servants. I have no reason to believe that civil service
candidates are anything other carefully selected on the basis
of deserving merit. This has been enhanced by the disappearance
of "automatic" honours since the reforms of 1993. It
is certainly true that in previous years awards of honours in
the diplomatic service and in the armed forces were over-generous,
but an attempt does appear to have been made in recent years to
reduce the number of honours given to these branches of the crown
service. Honours for higher levels in the civil service, the diplomatic
service and the armed forces usually come from the small specialist
Orders: the Order of the Bath and the Order of St Michael and
St George, rather than the Order of the British Empire. State
servants honoured by admission to the Order of the Bath or the
Order of St Michael and St George are not therefore depriving
the general public of honours. They have their own bread and do
not take it from the mouths of others.
If a yet more level playing field were desired
it could be assisted by the abolition of the separate lists of
the defence services and the diplomatic service. With such small
numbers and such a narrow focus, introspection is inevitable,
leading to the risk of over grading and different and more generous
standards for honours. Specialist committees dealing with the
armed forces and the diplomatic services could be created within
the structure of the Ceremonial Secretariat but, as with the existing
honours committees, their work would be subject to scrutiny and
review and their recommendations appearing as part of the general
("Prime Minister's") list. The Order of St Michael and
St George and the military divisions of the Orders of the Bath
and the British Empire would then be fully integrated into the
honours system. That in itself would broaden the scope of conferral
of these two Orders.
This change would abolish the separate powers
of patronage of the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary
of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. That only these
two cabinet ministers should have their own powers of patronage
Is it possible to break the apparently inevitable
link between social/employment status and the class of honour
There is no such link. This is an enduring myth
that should be laid to rest once and for all. The class of honour
received is linked to the level of service and the level of responsibility
of the recipient. During the debates surrounding the creation
of the Order of the British Empire in 1917, Sir Frederick Ponsonby
(Keeper of the Privy Purse) said as much: "I have been trying
to instil into the Prime Minister the right way of democratising
an Order; this is not done by giving a chimney sweep a Grand Cross,
but by ensuring that every man in the community should be eligible
for some Class of the Order." This comment is particularly
apposite at present, given the recent tendency to over-grade recipients
by giving higher honours at lower levels of responsibility.
Questions of personal social status and type
of employment are not factors that determine the level of honour.
The possession of a high honour does not mean that the recipient
comes from a "higher" class of society, nor does the
possession of a lower honour imply a working class origin. The
conferral of a knighthood and the appointment of an MBE indicate
only the contrasting levels of service that are being recognised.
They are not a statement about class, social origins or wealth.
Recent awards in such fields as sport, entertainment, etc reinforce
the view that there is no link between social status and the class
of honour received.
Is there an inevitable conflict of interest when
civil servants are the main judges in assessing whether other
civil servants receive honours?
No, there is no reason to doubt their impartiality.
Why focus on civil servants? Is there an inevitable conflict of
interest when sports personalities are the main judges in assessing
whether other sports personalities are worthy of receiving honours?
Or when scientists are the main judges in assessing whether other
scientists are similarly worthy? All groups can bring expert knowledge
and understanding of their contemporaries to the selection process.
Does that lead to "an inevitable conflict of interest?"
(a) Should there be an increase in the number
of independent outsiders who sit on the honours committees?
(b) Should the committees be made 100 percent
independent, perhaps by banning all members of such committees
from ever receiving an honour?
(a) This question seems to imply that existing
members of honours committees cannot be relied upon to undertake
the task entrusted to them. Is that really the case? There is
certainly an argument for committee members to be appointed for
fixed, short-term and non-renewable periods. This will prevent
the formation of opinionated cliques and maintain a consistently
fresh outlook. Overlapping appointments would ensure an important
element of continuity.
(b) This is a naïve idea. Given human
nature I doubt that any group of people can ever be made "100%"
independent. Why penalise honours committee members by barring
them from receiving honours? A much better policy would be to
provide that they should be persons of seniority and experience
in their professions and themselves already in possession of high
Should people who serve the state and the public
well in paid employment be recognised by higher pay rather than
the award of honours?
This question seems to imply that an honour
is a substitute for money, and that civil servants should be excluded
from consideration for honours. Many people in low-paid jobs outside
the civil service also receive honours. An honour is a means of
recognising exceptional service, no matter what the nature of
the employment or the salary of the recipient.
Would it be sensible, as the Wilson Review proposes,
to cut down the number of orders of honours so that state servants
have to compete on similar terms with everybody else?
Given the special nature of crown service (see
the answer to question 17 above), I am not convinced that it would
be right to make state servants compete with others for fewer
I take it that the Wilson Review argues against
the continued existence of the Order of the Bath (founded 1725)
and the Order of St Michael and St George (founded 1818). These
two honours have a considerably longer history than the Order
of the British Empire (founded 1917). The Order of the Bath was
originally used for politicians; its members are now drawn mostly
from the civil service and the armed forces. For the first fifty
or so years of its life, the Order of St Michael and St George
was an honour for the citizens of Malta and the Ionian Islands;
its members are now drawn mostly from the diplomatic service and,
in recent years, others who served the interest of the nation
in some "overseas" capacity. Both Orders now have very
different memberships from those envisaged by their founders.
Both are also used on state visits: presidents of republics are
usually made GCB (Knight Grand Cross of the Bath) while heads
of government and foreign ministers usually receive the GCMG (Knight
Grand Cross of St Michael and St George).
Abolition of these two Orders would sweep away
279 years of history in the case of the Bath and 186 years in
the case of the St Michael and St George, and prove to be not
only a waste of two useful honours, but also very short-sighted.
Putting everyone into the same pot will only reduce the number
of people who receive honours. There is evidence for this in the
unwise decision to discontinue use of the British Empire Medal
in 1993 (although it is still used by a number of Commonwealth
realms). Many who would once have received the BEM now receive
nothing. There is no reason why the award of this medal should
not begin again, although there were complaints about it being
presented by cabinet ministers or lord lieutenants rather than
The history of the Orders of the Bath and St
Michael and St George has been marked by adaptability. If their
continued existence as specialist awards for state servants is
thought to be questionable, there is no reason why they should
not be further adapted to embrace new categories of membership;
let the process continue. [See also the answer to Question 17].
Abolition of these two Orders would leave the Royal Victorian
Orderthe specialist honour for those who have served the
Royal Familylooking somewhat isolated. The principle of
specialist honours is sound, as long as standards are commensurate
throughout the system.
The honours system is constant but not static;
it has evolved from century to century and continues to evolve
to accommodate changing needs, but monochrome uniformity in the
world of honours would be like a picture devoid of colour.
Has respect for the honours system been diminished
by recent disclosures about its operation?
No. There is nothing so stale and dead as yesterday's
In 2000 the Wilson Review paper on Transparency
concluded "the honours system is not a live issue at the
moment. Nor is there much evidence of public dissatisfaction with
the system." Is this judgement still accurate?
Yes it is. When each bi-annual honours lists
are published some people will want to put question marks against
some names, sometimes with good reason; there is no way of avoiding
this. But the United Kingdom honours system in general is quite
free from controversy.
Is the general public aware of the honours system
and the part they could play in it through nominations?
(a) The general public is certainly aware
of the honours system, though they are less aware of constituent
sections. They would appreciate that a "Lord", a "Lady"
a "Sir" or a "Dame" is a rather important
person. They also recognise that the award of the Victoria Cross
or the George Cross mean that the recipient has been very brave.
They are also very familiar with the OBE and the MBEbecause
they probably know someone who has got one or the other. Everything
else is probably a mystery; but then so is the state pension system,
the funding of local government, the budget of the armed forces,
and a great many other aspects of national life.
(b) Statistics seem to imply that there
is a satisfactory level of awareness of the nomination system.
How should awareness of the system be raised?
Is not the publication of the bi-annual honours
lists sufficient publicity? It is well covered in the media and
there cannot be many people who are unaware that the United Kingdom
has an honours system. Further publicity in the national press
might assist, but with not altogether satisfactory results. Advertisements
would probably produce a high yield, but that would be more than
outweighed by the number of disadvantages: (i) unless the advertisements
were very carefully worded, the quality of the harvest is likely
to be poor; (ii) it might be thought the system is no longer capable
of attracting nominations by other routes; (iii) newspapers themselves
might "back" certain candidates; (iv) a spirit of competition
might emerge; and (v) the degree of mystique that is an essential
part of the system would disappear.
What is your view of the present system by which
roughly half of all honours are nominated directly by the public?
With the rest being generated by departments?
Departmental honours committees provide an important
filtering mechanism for honours that have been submitted from
around country. I would guess that the names that emerge from
these committees are often the better recommendations. The public
nominations system is a good addition to the process, but I imagine
that a large number of names entering the system by that route
consist of people who have been unfailingly "kind" or
"nice" or "helpful" to the nominator, or to
a member of his or her family over a period of time. In itself
that is praiseworthy, but it can seem very trivial when set on
the national stage. What is in effect a glorified character reference
does not justify the conferment of an honour. Many recipients
of honours are frankly not very "nice", but they are
achievers; they get things done. The system is designed to recognise
achievement, not kindly behaviour or even fame. Another possible
weakness of the nominations system is a tendency of the adoring
fan to marshal an army of signatures of fan club members to nominate
their favourite celebrity, with little real analysis of the extent
of actual service or achievement.
The public nominations process is still comparatively
new, and I hope that with the passage of time the public in general
will come to appreciate these points.
(a) Should there be a higher proportion of
public nominations, or should the system be fundamentally changed
so that all honours are awarded as a result of such nominations?
(b) What might be the disadvantages of such
an "all-nominations" system?
(a) The system should remain as it is; it
works well. There is much to be said for names being submitted
by different routes.
(b) I assume that the selection machinery
is designed to ensure that those who receive honours deserve them.
A considerable amount filtering has to be done to ensure that
this is so. If all recommendations were submitted by way of the
public nominations system, I could see the result being a much
greater influx of nominations of very uneven quality, many of
which would have to be referred to government departments for
independent and expert opinion and corroboration. The depth of
knowledge to be found in government departments is very extensive
and belies the popular misconception of civil servants who occupy
desks in Whitehall and know nothing of what is going on in the
country. See also the answer to Question 27 above.
(a) In the light of the full implementation
in 2005 of the Freedom of Information Act, should there be more
openness about the process by which recommendations for honours
(b) Should full citations be published?
(a) No. The system is as public as it needs
to be. Although transparency and openness are presently in vogue,
and as general principles they have much to commend them, further
openness could be fraught with risk. The selection process, which
includes committee discussions about individual names, must remain
confidential. If there is further exposure to the public gaze,
committee members might be more reluctant to speak freely in debate.
If it does not already happen, members of honours
committees should be required to observe strict secrecy, not only
of the names and papers that pass in front of them, but also of
the very fact that they are members of such committees. It is
a responsible task that should not be flaunted, because secrecy
will protect them from importunity (before) and vilification (after)
the publication of an honours list. A situation of open lobbying
of committee members to secure honours would be disastrous. Worse
still, disappointed nominees or nominators might demand to know
reasons for non-recommendation. If such reasons were made public,
there is a risk of personal humiliation, and even the possibility
of litigation by those refused honours.
Greater openness will not necessarily benefit
the present high reputation of the honours system, a reputation
that is based largely on trust. If the general public is confident
that the process is fair, they will accept secrecy. If they begin
to suspect that the process is unfair (eg political interference,
controversial names, doubt about deserving merit), trust will
evaporate and there will be a loud and justifiable cry for reform.
(b) There is certainly a good argument for
the publication of "fuller" citationsalthough
I wonder whether the national press would be willing to embrace
the substantial increase required in the quantity of newsprint
and column inches, as it is only the broadsheets which publish
in full the half-yearly lists. Given that members of the general
public do not read the London Gazette, this is where they will
get the fullest picture of honours recipients.
Isn't there a danger that more openness will lead
to personal embarrassments or a series of timid recommendations?
Yes, and more. See answer (a) to Question 29
(a) Is there evidence of political abuse of
the honours system?
(b) If there is abuse, what mechanisms might
be put in place to reduce it?
(a) I can only respond to this question
with another question. Are names added to or withdrawn from each
honours list, either by the Prime Minister or by his advisers,
after that list has been finalised by the Ceremonial Secretariat,
and without any further scrutiny? Although it is entitled "the
Prime Minister's List" I would expect his authority in this
respect to be delegated totally to the honours committees.
(b) If there is evidence of names being
added or withdrawn at the last minute by the Prime Minister or
his advisers, such action could be construed as political abuse
or at least political interference. Different governments have
particular and different interest areas that they desire to see
represented in successive honours lists. Although understandable,
this desire can lead to a real danger of misuse that could potentially
diminish the prestige of the honours system. If executive interference
is such that the content of a listeven if only a handful
of names are given high level honourscomes to be seen as
a reflection of government interests, irreparable harm will be
done. Every government, of whatever political hue, desires to
reward its own faithful supporters with honours. This is understandable
and acceptable. The risk lies in the addition of those names to
an honours list, without very careful scrutiny, and especially
when their service is represented in the guise of "public"
service. The infamous Harold Wilson Resignation Honours List of
1976 represented the nadir of honours lists in recent decades,
a depth not reached since the Lloyd George honours scandals of
the early 1920s. The compilation of each honours list is a delicate
matter, and public protest will greet the discovery that procedures
that have been applied to everyone else have been ignored or bypassed
in the case of certain "political" names.
It would add stature and respect to the office
of the Prime Minister if he and his advisers were to submit all
such names to the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, well in
advance of a list, leave well alone, and accept the decision of
that body whatever it might be. The PHSC was established in 1922,
in the aftermath of the shameless misuse of honours by David Lloyd
George, for just such a purpose. It would gain greater credibility
if its members were not themselves former politicians.
What role, if any, should Parliament, the Scottish
Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales play in the honours
Noneas long as there are adequate safeguards
in place to protect the honours system from undue interference
by the executive branch of government.
It should be noted that devolution is still
in its infancy and its future development cannot be predicted.
There is no guarantee that the present level of autonomy will
assuage nationalist aspirations in the long term, and the future
may well see corresponding demands for greater legislative independence
in Scotland and Wales. The Scottish and Welsh executives might
in time follow the example of the Canadian provinces and institute
their own honours (see the answer to Question 14).
The creation of an "Order of St David"
for Wales was proposed on more than one occasion in the 20th century.
It was considered at the time of the investiture of the Prince
of Wales in 1911. The absence of such an honour, to parallel the
Order of the Garter (for England) and the Order of the Thistle
(for Scotland), is curiously inexplicable.
The United States Congress awards a Medal of Honor.
Could Parliament do something similar?
I suppose it could, but why? Is there a perceived
need? Is there an obvious "gap" in the existing honours
system that could only be filled by some form of parliamentary
award? Such an award would need to be subordinated to the royal
prerogative, because all United Kingdom honours emanate from the
Sovereign who is the "fount of honour". A parliamentary
award would have a decidedly Cromwellian air about it; not a factor
that would tend to its advantage.
The Wilson Review (in its paper on Oversight,
paragraph 72) suggested a wider independent role for the Honours
Scrutiny Committee in "conducting periodic checks into the
processes by which candidates' names are generated, assessed and
ranked and how closely the lists reflect the distributional pattern
set by the Government of the day." Would such an expansion
of the Committee's role be helpful?
Any additional scrutiny is to be welcomed if
it will preserve the independence and prestige of the honours
system. The concept of honours lists reflecting "the distributional
pattern set by the government of the day" is slightly worrying,
and raises questions of political interference again. If recommendations
for honours are made principally in accordance with prevailing
government policy and ideology, it could raise doubts in the public
mind about the merit of system, or at least certain names in each
list, and be seen as an assault on the independence and integrity
of the honours system. As the political pendulum swings back and
forth it would also lead to the exclusion of certain hitherto
natural recipients of honours; perhaps those thought not to be
in the forefront of implementing government policy?