honours system

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honours system. Although the honours system is routinely denounced every January and June, when awards are published, there is, in fact, very little system. Like many things, it is a patchwork of accretions over the centuries. Consequently it reflects, to a considerable extent, the political evolution of the nation, from governing monarchy, through oligarchy and aristocracy, to parliamentary democracy. At each stage those who wield power award honours to themselves and their friends. The slow increase in the influence of ordinary people, as they have been brought into the political system, may be traced in the way in which, once totally excluded from honours, they are now accorded recognition as postmen, traffic wardens, and lollipop ladies. The declining power of the monarchy may also be traced as monarchs fought, with little success, to retain control of honours, sometimes refusing recommendations, sometimes creating new honours out of reach of the prime minister of the day.

In the early Middle Ages the highest honours were reserved for the royal family and their immediate favourites. The Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III in 1348, was jealously restricted: Pitt, Peel, and Gladstone were never included, and Disraeli only after he had become earl of Beaconsfield. The Scottish Order of the Thistle, refounded by James II, was restricted to peers until 1876 when Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, a mere baronet, was admitted. The knights of St Patrick, instituted by George III in 1783, were equally exclusive. Particular favourites might receive rapid advancement: Edward II made his friend Gaveston earl of Cornwall in 1307 to the indignation of the rest of the nobility; Richard II created Michael de la Pole earl of Suffolk in 1385. These were rare instances. The title of duke, highest in the land, was carefully restricted. Between 1572 and 1603 there were no English dukes at all, and between 1553 and 1660 the title was given to only one non-royal, Charles I's favourite Buckingham. Titles were, of course, augmented by other honours—lavish grants of estates (particularly at the expense of vanquished opponents), places of profit at court, functions at the coronation ceremony. Though there were always complaints that unworthy persons were being honoured, the circle remained very small indeed. At the end of Henry VII's reign, there were no more than 44 peers, and by 1603 it had increased only to 55.

The process of extending honours, which began in the 17th cent., had a number of causes. The penury of the Stuarts forced them to sell honours, and in addition to a sharp increase in titles, new orders of baronetcies—hereditary knights—were introduced. The victory of the nobility in 1688 opened the gates for Whig grandees to be promoted—no fewer than 23 were created dukes between 1688 and 1720. The parliamentary system meant that, more than ever, honours became an indispensable part of government, particularly since the crown had far fewer estates to give away. Promotions in the peerage eked out creations. Superannuated politicians like Sir Thomas Robinson were pacified by peerages, borough patrons like Sir James Lowther bought over. It was a powerful blow to the Fox–North coalition in 1783 when George III made it clear that he would not grant peerages at its request, since it advertised that supporting the coalition was not the way to win royal favour. The award of honours for conspicuous gallantry came rather late, with the Victoria Cross during the Crimean War. The Order of Merit in 1902 was an attempt to create an order for men of letters that the politicians would not seize, but even then George V failed to carry a nomination against Lloyd George's disapproval. The great breakthrough for democracy came in 1917 with the establishment of the Order of the British Empire—significantly at the same time that the dynasty changed its name to Windsor to get closer to the people. Though the order was still ranked, it reached further into the people than ever before, and included substantial numbers of women. Even so, there was unease among some when the Beatles were given an MBE in 1965. Since, in an egalitarian society, there are few opportunities to wear crosses and ribands, the Order of the British Empire has begun to sell ties.

There is considerable debate about the nature and role of honours in a democratic society. The present confusion may be illustrated with reference to the peerage. By origin peerages were not necessarily hereditary and it was an early object of noble ambition to make them so. Eventually the principle was established and when in 1856 the crown attempted to create life peerages for judges, they were declared unlawful. By the time life peerages were brought in in 1958, governments had lost the confidence to recommend hereditary titles. None were created until William Whitelaw was made a viscount on Mrs Thatcher's advice in 1983. How long the royal prerogative to create hereditary peers can remain valid if not employed is an interesting question.

J. A. Cannon