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.

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