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 http://www.honours.gov.uk/media/honours/assets/pasc_report.pdf
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?