Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Rt Hon Tony Benn (HON 12(ii))


  The public recognition of personal achievement and the contribution made by individuals to society has long been accepted as necessary and appropriate. The British honours system is justified because it performs exactly that service but suffers from four serious defects.

  First, all honours are rooted in a medieval view of social hierarchy, from a peerage down to a medal, which bear no resemblance to modern life since the idea that the Crown is regarded as the Fount of Honour is an out-dated concept.

  Second, most honours are awarded according to the social class of the recipient and not on the basis of the services that have been performed.

  Third, the honours list is drafted and drawn-up in private by civil servants and although it has to be approved by ministers, ministerial interest is confined to a handful of the best known people as when the Prime Minister himself may have an interest or know the possible recipients.

  Fourth, patronage of itself is inherently corrupting for, although no money passes as it did when Lloyd George sold honours to boost his personal political funds, there is something in the relationship that is created that implies a debt that needs to be repaid. For example, if an industrialist or a newspaper editor is honoured there is an implication that something is expected of him or her in return. This even extends to lesser honours which never come to ministerial attention and I have known of at least one case where a permanent secretary recommended a businessman for an honour and was then made a director on the board of that company when he retired.


  There are other ways of recognising a social contribution which is open and democratic as when a local authority confers the freedom of a city upon a person, a decision reached at a meeting of the council by resolution and although the person so honoured will feel a debt of gratitude it is attached to the city it is not to any individual.

  Similarly if a university gives a honorary degree this will go through some process of discussion and decision making and is not seen as being in the gift of the vice-chancellor.

  Trade Unions that award honorary membership to an individual also do it democratically as do many other voluntary organisations that may give awards of one kind or another.

  Indeed many artists, scientists, authors and actors and others receive awards which are decided by votes in the awarding body and announced on their behalf.

  In none of these cases are there different categories of award in that there is no such thing as a freedom of the city second class or an honourary BA, or a BAFTA medal or Nobel Peace Prize grade two.


  Public awards should follow the same process of nomination, consideration, collective decision and the grant of a single honour.

  In the armed forces the Victoria Cross can be awarded to anyone from a general to a private soldier as can the George Cross and although some awards still reflect the distinction between officers and other ranks (DSO and CGN, MC and MM, DFC and DFM) this could be easily corrected to make all ranks eligible for the same award.

  In the civil field it could be easy to arrange for all nominations to come through bodies which operate a democratic system as for example by allowing local authorities, learned societies or voluntary organisations to nominate one or two awards every year which would then be accepted automatically for the honours list.

  Ministers or MPs could nominate for an honours committee which, having approved them, would then table a motion of thanks in the House every year, which would be formally moved and seconded and followed by a Reception in Westminster Hall at which the recipients would be handed their awards by the Speaker leaving local authorities to present their own awards at some simple ceremony when they have been confirmed.

  If such a system were to be adopted it would be necessary to have a single award for example a Public Service Cross—PSC—or Parliamentary Medal—PM—which would have a democratic flavour to it and would allow gallant sub-post mistresses who had been injured fighting bandits to receive the same award as a retiring civil servant who had performed his duties conscientiously throughout his life.

  The question of peerages would also need to be reconsidered and I recommend that all hereditary and life peerages be abandoned and those who serve in the House of Lords through nomination, as at present, or through elections in the future, would be known as Senators.

  Life Peerages are no more democratic than hereditary peerages and indeed they preceded hereditary peerages by 100 years since when Writs of Summons were originally issued by Edward 1st they were only for life and the House of Lords today has been modernised back to the 14th century except that nowadays it is the Prime Minister and not the King who controls the tap on the Fount of Honour.

  For those who are attached to medieval practices the Fount of Honour could be piped back to the Palace so that the Queen herself could award Knights of the Garter or the Bath to her special friends or family in order to maintain the traditions in some form.


  My recommendations are that an open, democratically decided and common form of recognition would bring our practices up to date and would be widely welcomed.

April 2004

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