Friday 20 July 2007

An Introduction to the U.K. Honours System

Photo Courtesy Guardian Images (LINK)

Following a 16 month police inquiry led by "Yates of the Yard", prosecutors today announced that they would not file charges in what has been dubbed as "the Cash for Honours" scandal. The so-called scandal was linked to the Labour Party's nomination for life peerages of several men who had loaned large sums to the Labour Party.

The story was first reported in March 2006 and was splashed onto the front pages of every national newspaper, guaranteeing the honours system the undivided attention of the nation’s media. In the sixteen months that followed, scarcely a fortnight passed without some coverage of the story on television, radio or in the newspapers.

Despite this unparalleled level of attention, I have yet to see the media provide the public with a clear explanation of the structure of the honours system and the manner in which it operates. The honours system is poorly understood by the majority of the public and the mystery that surrounds it inevitably arouses suspicion.

I therefore provide the following information as a public service.

The United Kingdom Honours System

There are about 3,000 honours awarded annually in the United Kingdom at New Year and on the Queen’s official birthday in June. This does not include appointments to the Orders of the Garter and the Thistle, which are made on St. George’s Day and St. Andrew’s Day respectively and are peculiar to the monarchy. Honours that are within the Queen’s personal gift: the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Order of Merit, and the Royal Victorian Order and Chain, are beyond the influence of the Government and as such should not be regarded as national honours. Indeed, ardent monarchists might argue that there is no such thing as a UK honours system as the authority over all orders rests with The Queen and thereby transcend the UK nation state. Those advocating this view would point to the fact that 12 other commonwealth realms participate in the “United Kingdom” honours system with their heads of government making recommendations to The Queen in much the same way as the British Prime Minister.

The four remaining orders, the Order of the Bath, the Order of St. Michael & St. George, the Order of the British Empire and the Order of the Companions of Honour, are often referred to as the national honours, in a group with knights bachelor and life peerages. Of the four, only three are large multi-class state orders; the Order of the Companions of Honour is a single class honour restricted to 65. As mentioned, the Sovereign may also choose to honour an individual of noted accomplishment by creating him or her a life peer, which is always of the rank of Baron or Baroness. Life peerages were frequently announced in honours lists; however, this practice ended in the year 2000 and non-partisan peers are now created upon the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

In order to place the UK system in some perspective, it is also worth noting that Britain has far fewer orders than a great many comparable states. One could remove the Order of the Golden Fleece from Spain’s national list on the same basis as the Garter and the Thistle and still end up with nine orders for that country whilst Croatia, with 16 orders, has the largest number of orders per capita in Europe. Canada now has 13 orders: three national orders, excluding the Royal Victorian Order and the Order of St. John, and ten provincial orders. Romania has 16. Bosnia-Herzegovina has 19. Brazil has 22, and Malaysia has over 30. This far exceeds the number of UK orders. And although France rationalised 16 of its specialised merit orders into one national Order of Merit, it still found it necessary to retain five other merit orders: Academic Palms, Agricultural Merit, Maritime Merit, Cultural Merit, and Arts and Letters. The number of UK orders therefore compares very favourably with awards on the continent and elsewhere. Such a favourable comparison also applies to the number of awards made annually; for although some critics of the UK honours system have argued that 3,000 annual awards is excessive, a glance across the channel seems to suggest that the British Crown is rather parsimonious. In total France makes approximately four times as many awards as Great Britain in any one year. In 1951 in Italy a new system was established with the foundation of the Order of Merit of the Republic, which is now the principal award. The ability to award only one multi-class order, however, has proved injurious to the reputation of the Italian honours system. There are approximately 850,000 living members of the Order, with 7,700 Grand Crosses given since 1951, of which at least 4,000 are living. The number of annual awards exceeds 20,000!


Ecgbert said...

This issue came up recently with the trial of Lord Black in the news.

AFAIK the dominions' prime ministers still can send names to the Queen's honours list. But they no longer do because those governments have their own honours systems (ranks of 'the Order of Name-the-Country').

Lord Black came up because as you doubtless remember the Canadian PM at the time, Mr Chr├ętien, claimed Canadian citizens can't accept British honours. As I understand it that's not really true: around 1926 because of both the cash-for-honours scandal in Britain and American influence the Canadian government stopped giving names for the King's honours list. Not the same thing!

The other young fogey said...

Dear "other" Young Fogey,

Many thanks for your message. The subject of Canadian eligibility for titles (knighthoods and peerages) is a rather complex matter and relates to the 1919 Nickle Resolution, a non-binding resolution of the House of Commons which has become something of a Canadian convention; this notwithstanding the fact that titles have been granted to various Canadians in the years subsequent to Nickle.

The Black vs Chretien debacle was a classic example of the flawed logic underpinning government policy. Living in Ottawa at the time I wrote a fair amount on the saga.

I intend to write a detailed article on the broader subject of Canadian eligibility for titles and this shall be posted here in due course. In the meantime I can recommend that you read this helpful article:


A Fellow Young Fogey