Ladies and Lords

Privatising the honours system

"We will need to cleanse our public political culture of antiquated remnants . . . Titles suggestive of rank, as America's Founding Fathers recognised, are incompatible with a Citizen Nation pledged to equality."
Linda Colley, Britishness in the 21st Century, Millennium Lecture at 10 Downing Street

Periodically British newspapers give over whole pages to lists of persons newly "honoured" by the queen or prime minister, from CBEs (Commanders of the British Empire) to Lords and Ladies. The New Year honours are soon followed by the birthday honours.

These lists of the people the government or queen Windsor believe we should bow down to or look up to seem interminable. The only time that this causes much embarrassment is when one of these esteemed personages such as Jeffrey Archer, is convicted of a serious breach of the law. Then, for a while, it's harder to conceal the flaws.

(These "lords" and "ladies" should not be confused with lords of the manor, a less elevated group. They are not referred to as "my Lord" or "my lady", and do not have seats in the legislature.

A lord of the manor has rights over land that were once attached to the ownership of that land. Now the land my be owned by someone else but the lord of the manor may still have rights over minerals, sporting activity, fairs, markets, ferries and shipwrecks related to the land.

In 2002 the law was changed to require that these rights be registered with the Land Registry by 2013. Otherwise they would be lost when the land was sold.)

The Honours

Twice each year the British government tells us of forty new knights (i.e. "Sirs"), 130 CBEs, 250 OBEs and 600 MBEs it wants us to bow to.

Civil servants solicit nominations from public authorities that are not permitted to say which honour they believe the nominee should receive. Senior civil servants examine the nominations and more senior civil servants produce the final list of honourees.

Serving ministers and civil servants refused to talk to journalist Jon Snow about how they run this system for the British people when he made a documentary shown on Channel Four TV in June 2002.

In 2003, however, official documents showing how the system operates were leaked to the Sunday Times newspaper. One memorandum about a meeting of the main Whitehall honours committee suggested honours are often awarded routinely to those who have reached a certain status or to add interest to the announcement of new awards. A tennis player was recommended for an Order of the British Empire because he was under fifty and well known amongst an otherwise dull list. Scientist Colin Blakemore was thought a dubious candidate because his work was unpopular with anti-vivisectionists.

Other leaked documents brought to light the names of 300 people who have rejected an award under the feudal system. The names included Graham Greene, David Hockney, John le Carré, Robert Graves, Francis Bacon, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, J B Priestley, Anthony Powell, Roald Dahl, Philip Larkin, Trevor Howard, Alastair Sim, LS Lowry, Albert Finney, David Bowie, J G Ballard, Honor Blackman and George Melly. Artist Lowry seems to have rejected five awards, including a knighthood. The actor Albert Finney turned down both a knighthood and a CBE. Novelist Ballard described the honours system to the Sunday Times as a "preposterous charade . . . . It makes us look a laughing stock and encourages deference to the crown," he added.

The degree of honour awarded seems to be closely related to the social status of the recipient, i.e. the more like the senior civil servants they are, the more likely the candidate is to receive a high honour.

Queen Windsor bestow honours of her own, including Knights of the Thistle. Charlie Windsor, her son and head of state in waiting, has a AK, KG, QSO, PC, ADC, KT and GCB. His dad is a knight twice over, as well as a prince.

Mr. Snow reported in his TV documentary that some businesses have a “knighthood budget” - a philanthropic fund that is usually closed once the chief executive has been rewarded with an honour.

Civil servants are probably the largest group of recipients of honours. Being found negligent in their official duties need not be an obstacle to such an award.

Republicans and others with a democratic spirit see no sense in this. From time to time there are calls for the system to be abolished. It's the lingering residue of a feudal society and reinforces the intense and malignant stratification of British society.

Only a racist would tolerate an expectation that black people address white people as "master". Yet in Britain the forms of deferential address used when the nobility had their heels on the necks of the people are still generally accepted without question. One need only think of the phrase "to lord it over" someone to recognise the objectionable nature of lordship, the chief British honour.

Pretend that the honours system has no feudal heritage however and it still looks like a foolish idea. The people of Britain have never had a chance to vote on whether they want such a system or want to pay for it. Yet nowhere else in the world does the government expend so much of its citizen' money contemplating which of its citizens it believes to be especially worthy of high esteem.

For the tax payers this is a financial burden. Many hours of civil service time and much of the tax payers' money must be spent seeking nominations, vetting the nominees, approving the names and making the announcements. Even the politicians of the right who usually are the first to object to what they see as excessive taxation, are happy for the state to dig into the pockets of the people for this nonsense, however. And those of the centre and left are generally silent.

Given a choice it seems unlikely that there would be many who would not find it absurd that their money should be taken from them to be spent on deciding who is worthy of high public esteem, particularly when life-saving public services are under-funded. Most likely many would think that insofar as they wanted to know who was worthy of a particular regard they could make the decision themselves. They would perhaps rather spend their cash on buying a book or a bottle of whiskey, than have it taken by the Inland Revenue so that they might be told that they should bow before Sir Anthony Jackalent.

On the other hand, the sad truth is that in Britain there are still many who wish to be advised who to defer to and who to bow down before. A sense of decency requires that we not leave these people to flounder helplessly. We should look for an answer that allows their needs to be met and that also allows the democratic spirit to find renewed expression in Britain.

The honours system should be privatised. Let entrepreneurs take it over. If there is such a demand for “honours” as would justify the continuation of the system, the business is guaranteed to be a success. In a global economy there would be a global market. The interest recently expressed for seats in the House of Lords by overseas residents is a sign of that. Such a private business would not pollute the public sphere with the dregs of feudalism. But it would offer a better service for both the honourors and the honourees

The present arrangements ensure that the opportunities for buying an honour are both limited and expensive. Indeed the only real market for honours is in lordships. They are valued both because they are at the top of the system and because the honour entails a seat in the legislature for life. Alas, the price is around £2,000,000, paid to any political party that you expect to form a government. Only the very rich can afford to pay. What's more it is doubtful that the arrangement can continue much longer as the demand for a fully democratic legislature becomes stronger.

A market-driven system would ensure that that the opportunities for buying an honour would be no longer open only to the very rich. Of course, those with less money could not afford the highest honours but they could afford something, perhaps some mysterious letters to add at the end of their names.

More importantly a private service could better provide those who yearn to defer with more objects of deference. The market would provide more people with honours, so more scope for the expression of deference.

For an annual fee one could perhaps buy various packages of honoured persons to focus one's deference and esteem on. Some might want lords in their package, others would be content with knights. There might be a range of gender and ethnicity weightings to the packages for those who wanted to address equal opportunities deficiencies of that sort (See the House of Lords reform commission report If you doubt the desire for equal opportunities feudalism).

The present honours system offers the average person few opportunities to bow before their lords, knights and commanders. Such desires could be well provided for by private enterprise. The honours providers might act as post offices, receiving on behalf of the honoured ones greetings and holiday cards, letters of admiration and gifts from the deferential. They could also arrange opportunities for the deferentials to be in the presence of those they admire, bow before them and hear their sweet voices, much like queen Windsor's tea and cucumber garden parties.

Unlike the present official arrangements, these events would generate money for the organisers, instead of costing the tax payers. Those who think that the high and mighty of the nobility would not descend to this might recall how Sophie Rhys-Jones, (a.k.a. "The Countess of Wessex") touted for public relations work to supplement her familiy's state handout of £140,000.

No need then to worry about what to do when the likes of Jeffrey Archer goes to jail. He would be in breach of contract and would be sacked. Those who had paid to adore him would get a refund. Or perhaps imaginative insurers would offer cover, with a substantial compensation for emotional suffering.

And those of us who like to make our own decisions about who to respect, who should represent us in the legislature and what non-essentials to spend our cash on, need not be bothered.

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