Monday, 19 January 2009

British Honours System - Some ideas for stability and reform

The maintenance of several different awards, given for different purposes and in different classes, is an important feature of most successful honours systems. This makes it possible to award different types of service in different ways, and to promote a recipient to a higher grade after greater services. The association of different classes of award with different types of service is also important; furthermore, people who have distinguished themselves in several different fields can be given different awards rather than (as in Italy, Germany and Austria with their single Merit Orders) be promoted to a higher rank perhaps not commensurate with their rank.

One of the reasons the Legion of Honour enjoys such prestige is that it has an autonomous self-governing status under the direction of its own Grand Chancellor, one of the highest ranking officials of the French State who is appointed by the President for a fixed term; he and the Council of the Order, which must include a certain number of members from each rank of the Order, examine the qualifications of every candidate proposed. No national elected official – member of the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate, may receive the Order, which is given in the name of the President of the Republic. Under the statutes of the Order, three generations of the same family who have received the Order and been invested by Letters Patent receive the hereditary title of “Chevalier” (although not of the Order).

The elimination of a hierarchy of honours leads in practice to their substitution by a variety of other sources. In Ireland, which has never had a national honours system (a choice born of a desire not to replicate the Imperial system in any way), its citizens nonetheless join the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (an independent, sovereign entity which has diplomatic relations with many EU states), the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre (given by a Cardinal appointed by the Pope), the Papal Orders, and of course may receive foreign awards. Mexico has had at various times republican and imperial honours systems but today has only one national award that may only be given to foreigners; it has been reported to us by a former Mexican chief of protocol that having only one Order even to reward foreigners has made for considerable difficulties when granting awards to foreigners whose services may be disparate and unequal. The lack of a national system for Mexican systems has not prevented Mexican citizens from seeking and receiving foreign awards or “self-styled” awards.

It is likely that the European Union will eventually establish its own system of honours, and that this will provide a further layer of honours in addition to national honours systems. It would be a mistake if the British system was so diminished, or the prestige attached to membership in the more ancient institutions eliminated by their abolition, so that such national awards were valued less than an award by the European Commission or a foreign government.

To summarise, a reform of the present honours system should maintain the ancient Orders, which provide a direct link to the past and to past recipients; lacking roots or historical foundation, a new Order can be only a pale imitation of that which it is intended to replace. A system of different classes in each Order allows for promotions and different levels of award for different types of service. There is a strong argument for giving greater autonomy to the administration of the Orders, perhaps establishing a state official who serves a fixed term comparable to the Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honour and an independent council to insure that all recipients meet a certain criteria, but separate from the administration of the civil service.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

How do European honours systems compare?

The award of honours has its origins in classical Greece and Rome, with the grant of special privileges; then later, with the emergence of nation states, sovereigns saw the institution of Orders as a useful and economical means of rewarding citizens for military or civil service. Every European Union state, except Ireland, has a system of national honours, based on the award of an Order of Knighthood, sometimes described as an Order of Merit, in a number of different ranks or grades. In most countries the names of these Orders are based on historical links to the past even if the organization and the basis for the award has changed substantially. In the past, for example, some Orders required “proof of nobility”, others conferred nobility.

All the European Monarchies have one or more Orders, in the case of the more ancient states dating back in origin to the 17th century or earlier. With the exception of Sweden, all are given both to their own citizens and to foreigners; Sweden suspended in 1976 the award to its own citizens in the belief that such honours were anti-egalitarian.

The Republics also have one or more Orders of Merit to reward their citizens and also foreigners, also in various grades or degrees. Some are completely new foundations, while some are continuations of more ancient Orders often founded when these states were monarchies.

In both monarchies and republics these usually carry the designation of knight grand cross, knight grand officer, knight commander, knight officer or knight, if the Order has five classes; a three class Order has the ranks of knight grand cross, knight commander and knight. Only in Great Britain is a separate title accorded along with a knighthood, that of “Sir” for gentlemen and “Dame” for ladies who receive either the first or second class of the three principal Orders. In the British system the highest rank, knight or dame grand cross, also includes the award of a collar worn on special occasions; both this and the next rank, of knight or dame commander, carry the designation of “Sir” or Dame” before the recipient’s first name (the recipients of honorary knighthoods, who are not subjects of the sovereign, are not entitled to these designations).

The system of honours in other European states varies considerably; the following brief survey explains some of the differences and characteristics:

Denmark maintains the Order of the Elephant (the equivalent of the Garter,, but with a larger membership) and the Order of the Dannebrog, which was founded in 1671 (a revival of a more ancient institution). These not only provide for the recipients a direct link with the past glories of Danish history, but confer even today special privileges of precedence.

In France the Legion of Honour is held in the highest esteem by French citizens. It was originally founded by Napoleon in 1802 as the system of royal Orders had been abolished in the revolution, and has been maintained by every successive regime, thus considerably enhancing its prestige in comparison with lesser awards such as the 1960s foundation of the French National Order of Merit (which combined a series of colonial and lesser national Orders). The historic origins of the Legion of Honour, its continuity, and the limitations on its grant contribute to this; nonetheless there are more annual awards of the Legion of Honour than in all British awards added together. The Legion of Honour is awarded in the ranks of Grand Cross (limited to a total of 75 French citizens but an unlimited number of foreigners), Grand Officer (limited to a total of 125 French citizens but an unlimited number of foreigners) Commander, Officer and Knight (Chevalier, the same designation used for Lady recipients). It has a statutory limit of 125,000 living members, presently standing at approximately 113,000. The largest proportion of recipients of the Legion of Honour have received the decoration for military service, but it is considered the most prestigious of French awards and is therefore given for outstanding civilian service. A lesser, but still notable service, might be considered more appropriately rewarded by the National Order of Merit. France also has seven further awards for civilians given for services to culture, the arts, agriculture, the merchant marine and academia. France makes approximately four times as many awards as Great Britain in any one year.

In complete contrast, when Italy abolished its Monarchy in 1946, it suspended or abolished all the royal Orders except the former Order of Military Merit, which became a republican order. In 1951 a new system was established with the foundation of the Order of Merit of the Republic, now the principal award, The Order of Lavoro (Work) (founded by King Victor Emmanuel III in 1901) was retained as a single class Order with a limited number of knights. 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 7700 grand crosses given between 1951 and 2004 of whom at least 4000 are living – the number of annual awards exceeds 20,000. In addition the Italian state authorizes the use of the Orders given by the former reigning houses, and there is an epidemic of completely spurious awards and many lesser quasi-private civilian awards.

States that have abolished the historic system of awards (as did Portugal, for example, with the downfall of the Monarchy in 1910), have in several cases reinstituted the ancient originally royal Orders with near identical decorations and structure, as they found they were an important and valuable way of rewarding both their citizens and foreigners.

Evidence suggests that the public has great respect for those Orders that can demonstrate a historic link with the national saga. Orders can become potent symbols of a nation’s independence and tradition. Newly founded Orders consistently fail to capture the public imagination in a similar way. For example, immediately following the collapse of communism, a newly independent Poland reinstituted its ancient awards system (abolished by the communists), notably the Orders of the White Eagle and Polonia Restituta (this latter a substitution of a more ancient Order that had been taken over by the Imperial Russian regime), which had been given by the government in exile after World War II, and thus provided a direct link to the historic Polish state before Russia absorbed Poland into its Empire at the end of the 18th century. The revival of these ancient Orders helped to re-establish a sense of national pride; one might consider that the abolition of ancient institutions and their replacement with a system with no historic routes is unlikely to inspire much respect.

Although the Second Spanish Republic abolished all the royal Orders and instituted its own republican award, these have all been re-established and their ancient histories and links to the past as in other modern cases are much valued. These Orders include the two highest – Charles III, founded in the 18th century, and Isabella the Catholic, founded in the early 19th, several specific national merit Orders (Civil, Military, Naval and Air Force), and several Orders awarded on the recommendation of certain ministers for services in that field (i.e. Agricultural Merit, given in four classes, on the recommendation of the responsible Minister). All such awards are made in the name of the King. The highest Spanish Order is the Golden Fleece, given by the King almost exclusively to members of the royal family and foreign sovereigns – it is the Spanish equivalent of the Garter.

Certain states have prohibited their own citizens from accepting the national awards, which are limited exclusively to foreigners; Sweden has imposed such a limitation so that Swedish citizens can be awarded Orders by foreign governments but not by their own. The exception to this is the rather unusual Royal Masonic Order of Charles XIV and the Swedish Order of St John, an hospitaller service Order comparable to the British Order of the same name. The ancient Swedish Orders have nonetheless been maintained with the historic structures and are given to members of the royal family and foreigners. An immediate consequence of this restriction has been that there are a plethora of suspect honours given by non-state or unofficial bodies, which are often eagerly sought after, but over which the state has no control. Indeed, it has effectively abdicated the option of rewarding its own citizens with chivalric distinctions to others – one sees senior officers in the Swedish armed forces wearing completely spurious decorations.

One may note the experience of Canada, which first prohibited its citizens from accepting British awards for services to Canada, and instituted the Order of Canada in a single class. Already it has been found necessary to institute a hierarchy of classes of the Order and, in addition to this national Order, now every province has its own provincial Order; Canada now has one of the highest number of Orders (other states with high numbers are Russia, Brazil, and Portugal – Venezuela also has a number of national and then many provincial Orders), but the provincial Orders do not enjoy the prestige of the old imperial system.

The conferral of a title upon a recipient of the higher grades of an Order is often held as a practice peculiar to the United Kingdom, yet several foreign state Orders continue to confer privileges and titles on their recipients; in Italy, for example, recipients of the State Order of Merit are entitled to the style “Cavaliere, Ufficiale, Commendatore, Grande Ufficiale, or Gran Croce” before their names. Recipients of the Spanish Order of Isabella the Catholic are automatically ennobled thereby, although such nobility is not hereditary. The Grand Cross of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog confers certain privileges, as do the lesser ranks. In most European countries the recipients of Orders wear a buttonhole rosette differing according to the Order awarded and the class held; these are outward demonstrations of having received the honour (non-academic post nominals are the exception in Europe). The recent establishment of “emblems” for the British Orders, which may be purchased by the recipients and worn in the buttonhole, has been done imitation of European practice.

Friday, 16 January 2009

The British Honours System: Should it be reformed further

The British Honours system usually comes to the attention of the public just twice a year, with the publication of the names of those who have been recommended by the prime minister to the sovereign for a peerage, the honour of knight bachelor, or membership in the Orders of the Bath, St Michael and St George and the British Empire. The honours list includes those who have been accorded membership in the Royal Victorian Order (although some nominations are made during the course of the year), which is in the direct grant of the Sovereign. Also included are recipients of the Distinguished Service Order (given for bravery or very distinguished military service, in one class, that of companion) and the Imperial Service Medal (given to reward civil servants) and other lesser decorations. The civilian awards are listed separately to the military ones, which in the case of the Orders of the Bath and British Empire each have military divisions. There are also overseas lists which include those nominated by some of the smaller territories of which the sovereign is head of state and those non-British subjects or Britons resident abroad who have served the United Kingdom in some way. The Imperial Service Order is still awarded in some of the former colonies but has not been included among the awards given to British subjects since 1993.

The Sovereign also awards membership in the Orders of the Garter and Thistle, but these are not included in the annual honours lists and are announced shortly before each of their annual ceremonies, except when conferred on a foreign sovereign. They carry precedence ahead of all the other national honours and are limited respectively to the sovereign and twenty-four and sixteen knight or lady companions respectively, excluding members of the royal family and foreign sovereigns. The Order of Merit occupies a special place; it is limited to the sovereign and twenty-four members who rank immediately after the knights grand cross of the Order of the Bath. Membership of this Order does not confer any special title; it is given at the sole discretion of the Sovereign without ministerial advice. The Order of the Companions of Honour, which likewise does not confer any title or precedence, has a maximum of sixty-five members plus the Sovereign; a maximum of forty-five of the members are appointed by the Sovereign on the personal recommendation of the prime minister of the United Kingdom, seven on that of the prime minister of Australia, two on that of the prime minister of New Zealand and eleven on that of the prime ministers of other countries of which the sovereign is head of state (but not Canada). Both the Orders of Merit and of Companions of Honour have, very rarely, been awarded on an honorary basis – these awards are not included in the numerical limit.

Awards of the Orders of the Garter, Thistle, and Merit are not included among the honours that are subject to review by the Main Honours Committee. Appointments to membership in the Order of St John, of which the Sovereign is “Sovereign Head” are not included in the honours list but, like all other British honours, are published in the London Gazette. Members of this Order are given no precedence or title; the Order of St John is included in the precedence of Orders in Canada but is only listed among the Decorations in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Recipients of state honours are subsequently invested by the Sovereign or, in the absence of the latter, by a Councillor of State, at one of the royal palaces (most frequently at Buckingham Palace, but also at Holyrood House in Edinburgh and in Cardiff) in a ceremony which may be attended by members of their family. Investitures of the Order of the Garter, Thistle, the Order of Merit and Order of Companions of Honour are done separately and individually.

The arguments in favour of maintaining systems of national honours are strong ones. The ancient Orders of Knighthood provide a direct link to the achievements of past recipients who have contributed in a variety of ways to the nation; a recipient of the Order of the Bath, of Saint Michael and Saint George, or of the Order of the British Empire knows that he or she follows in a long line of distinguished persons who have received the same award. In those states which have retained historic systems of national honours and awards, these are held in far higher regard and esteem by recipients and the public alike than the awards of those states which have abolished ancient institutions and replaced them with recently instituted merit awards.

Those who have argued that such systems are anachronistic have not come up with satisfactory alternatives; those countries which do not have national honours systems have struggled to reward their citizens in other ways, often with less success. Approcimately 1% of those offered an honour decline it, suggesting that the system is valued by those who receive such honours.

The system was reformed in 2004 with the establishment of a much more independent system of awarding honours. This included the introduction of the Main Honours Committee, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary composed of the chair (persons) of the eight specialist subsidiary committees, the chief of the Defence Staff and the Permanent Secretaries of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office. The specialist committees are Science and Technology, State, Health, Education, Sport, Arts and Media, Community, Voluntary and Local Services, and Economy. The responsibility of each subsidiary committee is to make recommendations to the Main Honours Committee and review any recommendations made by others. Since 2006 (and the scandal over the alleged sale of honours) the prime minister has waived the prerogative to amend the list of recommendations made to him by the chair of the Main Honours Committee, as have the Foreign and Home secretaries in respect of the lists submitted to them. The full procedure since the 2004 reforms may be found in detail at

There are a number of points worth considering in respect of any possible further reforms of the present system. These include, in no particular order of importance:

Should the present system be expanded so that a larger group of persons may be included among the annual recipients and the ratio of those in the lower two grades of the Order of the British Empire are increased to a much greater proportion of the total?

Should the Orders of the Bath and St Michael and St George be expanded to include two further classes of Officer and Member, paralleling the Order of the British Empire? This would enable awards to be made to individuals who have served their country in different ways without necessarily promoting them in the Order of the British Empire.

Should the present procedures for nominating candidates for honours be made more open? There is a good case to be made, for example, for allowing the files on those who have received an honour to be open so that the public can see the full measure of achievement of the nominee.

Should the names of those individuals who recommend someone for a particular honour, along with their letters of recommendation, and any government members who support it be made known, along with the complete dossiers on the recipients? Such transparency may give the public greater confidence in the system.

Should there be quotas based on gender or ethnicity? The 2008 report of the committee makes particular mention of the stated desire to take these factors into account with the implication that these factors should be considered when determining whether a particular candidate should receive an honour.

Should certain categories of persons from receiving national honours, because of the office or position they hold? France, for example, does not permit elected national politicians to receive a national honour while in office.

The chair of the Main Honours Committee is the Cabinet Secretary, head of the home civil service, who is a government appointee and must, by the very nature of the post be on close terms with the government. Would it be better for this post to be filled by an official with no other responsibilities who is no longer serving within the military or civil service? Should a specially prestigious position be created, as in France, whose holder will preside over this body drawn from among senior former military officers or high ranking civil servants with no political affiliation?