Honours and Honors: Why the UK’s Honours System Is Under Attack, and What the US Can Learn From It

The British press, and thus the British political class, are all in a lather about the Honours system; as a result of a pair of leaks, there is decent chance that the system will be reformed. Below, I give a quick summary of how the system works, then summarize both the valid and the slightly peculiar aspects of the current criticisms of it, and then discuss what I consider to be the strong case in favor of a non-monetary system of reward and praise for those who contribute to the community.

The biggest difficulties surround the implementation of an honors program in a manner that would be constitutional, fair and not stultifying. I don't have the perfect answer to that, but I do have some suggestions.

The British Honours System

Twice a year, that is at New Years and on the Queen’s Birthday (which is not the Queen’s actual birthday, but never mind), Her Majesty’s Government publishes a list of more than a thousand persons who will be granted various honors, or rather honours. The honours vary enormously. There are a variety of purely military awards, but the majority of them are for civilians who are rewarded for meritorious service to the community in any of a very wide variety of fields including politics, science, arts (both classical and popular), starting with MBEs which are medals called the “Member of the British Empire”, then ranging up through OBEs “Order of the British Empire”, to CBEs (Commander of the British Empire). MBEs are commonly given to long-serving postmen and church wardens and worthy folk who are not part of the ‘great and the good’; a CBE might be given to someone active in local politics, or to a popular actor or singer. The big awards, knighthoods, also come in various flavors and orders and ranks. For the Order of the Bath, these ranks are known to the cognoscenti as KG’s, KCMGs GCMG’s. While these really stand for Knight (Bachelor) of the Garter, Knight Commander and Knight Grand Cross of the Garter, the joke among the civil service – which gets the lion share of the elevated knighthoods – is that these stand for “Call me God,” “Kindly Call me God,” and “God Calls Me God”. Knighthoods (or, if the recipient is female, being named a Dame) differ from the lower honours in that after the recipient kneels before the Queen, they arise renamed. For example if Ms. Edna Average were to be made a Dame, she’d legally be Dame Edna, on her passport, credit cards, and so on, from then on. (In fact, there sort of is a Dame Edna[LINK], but that’s another story. There are also two special, separate honours called the Order of Merit (OM) which is limited to 24 living recipients at any time, and the Companion of Honour (CH), which are even higher than knighthoods, but don’t work a change on the name of the recipient. The OM is unusual among the major honours in that the Monarch actually selects them herself; almost all other honours other than those for members of the Royal Family, foreign Royals, and the Queen’s household are selected by the government although granted in the Queen’s name.

It used to be that governments also handed out higher honours twice a year: peerages. Until a generation ago, peerages were inherited. Exactly what all the ranks are or were, I’ve never quite been sure I sorted out, but they included — in increasing order of precedence — Baronetcy, Baron, Viscount, Earl, Marquis, Duke. A Baronetcy is not a true peerage as it gives the inheritable right to be called ‘Sir Something’ but doesn’t carry with it the right to sit in the House of Lords. Like ordinary knights the holder has the right to vote, and can sit in the House of Commons if elected to it. True Peers of the Real, the Barons and up, lose their vote, and indeed lose their surnames, became Lord Something of Somewhere. Until recently all peers became life members of the House of Lords.

As the anti-democratic nature of an inherited second chamber became more and more troubling to the increasingly democratic Britons, the powers of the upper house were lessened, and the institution of the ‘life’ (ie not-inheritable) peerage was instituted. For a while it looked as if inheritable peerages might be abolished by disuse, but in a criticized move, former Labour prime minister Harold MacMillan accepted an hereditary Earldom from Margaret Thatcher. It was said at the time that both the giver and the recipient wanted to revive the tradition of traditional peerages for former PM’s in order to provide for their somewhat feckless offspring. (Ironically, MacMillan’s son predeceased him.)

The current government having (somewhat reluctantly) reformed the House of Lords, peerages no longer guarantee a seat in the upper house. Although Tony Blair refused to accept an elected upper chamber, presumably because it might get in the way of the near-despotism available to a party that controls the Commons, the House of Lords has been cut down in size, and only those whom peers elect from among their number will have a vote in the reformed chamber, along with a small number of so-called people's peers and working peers traditionally selected by the political parties since the mid-20th century to represent their interests.

Current Leaks and Scandals

The current imbroglio over the UK’s honours system was fueled by two leaks one about people who refused honours offered to them, and another about the secret committees that pick the honourees. The tradition in Britain is that once the government decides to honour someone it contacts them in secret to find out if they willing; it’s considered very bad form to let on you are in line for an honour before the official announcement and people almost never do. Similarly, it’s considered very bad form to let on that you were offered something and turned it down. Indeed, the official line was that this almost never happens. But in fact, the first leak revealed that refusing honours was much more common than anyone outside they system would have guessed, as it appears that some 300 people, a veritable honour role of leading figures in the arts and sciences, have refused the offer of honours in the last 50 years. The motives varied; some, it seemed, might have refused the offer of a lower honour in the hopes of a higher one, or in the belief that the lower one was beneath their dignity (although receipt of a lower level honour does not preclude the later grant of a higher one, and this does happen, it’s relatively rare; a recipient may feel that the danger of it being the only one is too great). There’s a big difference between even a CBE and a knighthood.

Although the first leak got the most attention, the second leak was probably more damning, and in the long run more damaging than the first. It seems that in response to criticisms that the system three years ago the civil service commissioned a report about the means by which British honouree s are selected. The report concluded that the committees and sub-committees making the choices were dominated by civil servants, and stacked with white elderly males – only two of the 54 people holding 89 places on the committees (some served on more than one) were nonwhite, and only seven were female. They were thus unrepresentative of Britain.

In a classic Yes Minister moment, the Cabinet secretary (chief civil servant) who commissioned the report didn’t tell the Prime Minister about its existence or its conclusions on the absurd grounds that – and this is the liberal Guardian reporting this – he “saw no need to do so.” Now the report is out, and the press at least is baying for change. The coming review will likely at least modernize the names of the awards (getting rid of the “Empire” stuff) and shake up the membership of the committees. Whether a review chaired by the man who runs the current system will do anything more fundamental once the furore has died down, especially as it might result in fewer ‘gongs’ for civil servants is open to doubt.

The case for reform gets an extra kick from the story about Colin Blakemore, the head of the Medical Research Council (MRC). The job usually earns the hodler a knighthood, but it's alleged his was denied because the government thought that his defense of animal experiments made him too controversial [an alternate version of the story floating around is that Prince Charles made it clear he didn't want to have to 'shake hands with a vivisectionist'].

The Case for the Right Sort of Honors System

An honors system has always seemed to me to be a very cost-efficient way for a society to motivate, reward, and celebrate people. Experience suggests that altruism alone is insufficient to motivate all the good works that one might ideally desire. Economics teaches that people can be motivated by money, and indeed this is the heart of the capitalist system. Nevertheless, there are some things we might like to encourage which are hard to monetize, and others that would be expensive to monetize on a national basis. Furthermore, there may be some people who are better motivated by non-monetary rewards, and others whom we might like to celebrate and thank without necessarily brining money into the transaction.

The US does have a small number of civilian honors, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We also do (private) awards for the arts and letters reasonably well, such as the Pulitzers and the National Book Awards. We probably overdo awards for popular entertainment, with Oscars and Tonys and Emmys and Clios and People’s Choices and many other things that produce bad TV that no one will ever admit to have watched.

Overall, however, we in the US lack a properly designed honors system — one with the right sort of values – a combination of democracy and elitism – rather than the clubby elitist sort found in the British system, and of course one without the legislative aspect of the House of Lords. The first George Bush alluded to this with his thousand points of light but even if that effort was sincere, it petered out. I first heard of the Points of Light Foundation when I searched for the Bush speach inventing the term.

At the most exalted levels, it’s clear that the desire for prizes and recognition provides an extra spur for some. Many biographies of leading scientists recount their awareness that being the first to make a particular discovery might lead the way to a Nobel Prize; and while it’s likely that most or all of them would have pursued their science wholeheartedly even if there were no Nobel, it probably adds intensity to some efforts. Surely there’s room for intermediate levels of awards between the corner office or the eminent chair on the one hand and the Nobel prizes on the other?

The need for an honors system may be even greater at the local level. To pick an example close to home, my kids sometimes a chess club hosted at a local library by Chris Stormont. Chris runs two chess clubs every Saturday, at two different libraries, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. He provides the chess boards, timers, a small amount of instruction, and a very wholesome atmosphere in which large numbers of kids from three to about twelve, sometimes fifteen, play chess. Chris volunteers his time, has done for years, and accepts no payment; he just does it for the love of the game, and to introduce it to children. It would be really nice if there were some established method by which we could thank him and celebrate his generosity both in gratitude and as a model for others. If we lived in England, I’d be writing in to recommend Chris for an MBE or something, but if there’s a US address I can write to for some equivalent recognition, I never heard of it.

Implementation Is (Almost) Everything

The biggest problem, however, is how to administer an honors system without falling prey to the opposed dangers of a purely politicized award (pace the recent award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to WSJ Editor Robert L. Bartley) or an over-bureaucratized and self-rewarding one as it appears the British have got.

Simply leaving the award in the hands of the President seems likely to make them too political, and to create a class of gifts that might flow disproportionately to campaign donors.

On the other hand, most systems by which we try to “take things out of politics” end up having problems of their own. Trying to set up an governmental commission independent of political pressure is difficult constitutionally, and remains open to capture of various sorts. Even more likely is establishment appointments and a tendency towards timidity, with the example of the Karen Finley grant controversy involving the National Endowment for the Arts fresh in appointees’ and appointers’ minds. Perhaps, though, some awards, at least the local ones, could be channeled through local Boards picked at random from the adult population of a community – that might lead to some interesting results.

Reliance on advice from professional peer groups also will tend to a fairly timid and establishment perspective, although it may remove some of the dangers of (party) political manipulation.

Lastly, allowing popular election like we do for the selection of some All-Stars has advantages, but also many disadvantages. Many will find it undignified, and be hurt if they lose, possibly causing more harm than good provided by the awards. And, popular vote works only for those who are in fields known to the public, and whose work is national is scope. Chris Stormont is never going to win a national ballot for an award, however deserving he may be.

I don’t think I have the perfect answer to this problem, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be possible to construct some hybrid system which had some awards distributed in each fashion. Failing that, I’d say go fully random: have even the national selection committee be composed of at least a majority of randomly chosen citizens, and see what happens. People in my experience tend to rise to the occasions that they are given responsibility (think ‘juries’), and we might just be able to get a system we could be proud of.

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One Response to Honours and Honors: Why the UK’s Honours System Is Under Attack, and What the US Can Learn From It

  1. Ken says:

    A number of states award citizens with various honors. For example, I’m an admiral in the Nebraska State Navy, a purely honorary civilian title – and one I share with Prince Philip, among many others. The most well known, worldwide, is the Kentucky Colonel designation. Kentucky is among the most generous of the states in recognizing accomplishment and goodness in people from anywhere. While officially one must be a colonel to nominate a colonel, since the appointment is made by the governor why not get in touch with the governor’s office and see what happens. Couldn’t hurt

    Enjoyed your piece on the British Honours System.

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