Our System of Honours - RSA

Our system of honours

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    Martin Matthews FRSA
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There are four countries which derive their honours systems from the monarchy: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps we can draw on the best from all the systems to make ours inclusive and appropriate for the twenty first century?

“The award of honours for service and achievement has been a valued part of British life for centuries. It is the means by which we, as a nation, can show our respect and gratitude to those who have contributed most to our national life.” - Prime Minister John Major

Few people want the national system of recognition abolished. The Australian honours system has a clear purpose which most accept;

“Honours help define, encourage and reinforce our national aspirations, ideals and standards by identifying those among us who make an outstanding contribution to our society.” - Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC

Society is clear it wants to thank those who go that extra mile; people who give their time to make our local and national life that bit richer and fuller. The overwhelming response from people is that they like others being honoured, but the same criticisms are voiced again and again. Many of these criticisms were highlighted in the United Kingdom 2004 report.

What rankles most with the public is the consistent perception that politicians are rewarded for being politicians, or have undue influence.

“What is permissible is not always honourable.” - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Canada decided that “elected officials … are not eligible to be appointed while in office.” This unequivocal statement has removed all perception of political interference in the Canadian honours system. We already have separate orders only for the civil service and the royal household. Should we have one for politicians?

One of the most contentious aspects of the honours system is the Order of the British Empire. The public love to see people from their town recognised but the 'empire' part could be considered anachronistic. If we look to Canada and New Zealand, they have made considerable efforts to include all heritage nations in their honours systems. They also have a stated aim to gender balance their honours and proportionately include people with disabilities. The design of their insignia has included features from their national cultures and produced bold and visually impressive awards.

As a nation, I believe that we cannot continue the colonial connotations of 'empire' or the motto “For God and the Empire” as the way we thank people. These reflect 1917 when the Order was founded. The Empire is long gone and the percentage of the population who identify as Christian is not what it was. These deter people from nominating others and is an ethical dilemma to some, who subsequently refuse an honour. I think we have long passed the point of renaming the Order to continue the same post-nominal letters.

Devolution has been under way since the late 1990s and the parliament and assemblies have matured into solid democratic organisations. Should we devolve the award of honours to each nation? The 2004 report on the honours system suggested new national orders named after the patron saints. This is fraught with problems. The Russian Federation has an Order of St Andrew and the Order of St Patrick has unfortunate connotations to Irish independence. I suggest we look to the heraldry of each country and have unique new orders such as the Order of the Welsh Dragon and the Order of the Unicorn. These are immediately identifiable to people from each country, have visual appeal and a distinctive history.

Devolving recognition as a four-tier order – medal, member, officer, companion to each country would significantly change the inclusiveness of the system. This would address the issue of so few people from outside the South and East of England being honoured. Having representative people from each nation deciding who they want to honour would also be a big step forward. If the honours citation was published with each recognition this would have many positive effects. It would provide a writing framework for all to see and give the public clear details of why a person was honoured. It would also be nice if the name of the person honoured was engraved on the award.

There is also the thorny issue of honours forfeiture; this needs urgent reform as the current system is arcane. Put simply, if people fail to uphold the expected standards in public life honours should be removed.

The award of honours which give a title change to “Sir”, “Dame” or “Lord” would be retained at United Kingdom level due to their foundation in the 1707 Act of Union.

The House of Lords has been considered ripe for reform since before world war one. The award of the life peerage can be de-coupled from membership of the legislature. This would enable an additional tier of recognition and allow the evolution of our second chamber of government to advance as it saw fit, unfettered by the link to honours and patronage.

One aspect of the honours system has to be resolved. When a man is designated as Sir, if he has a male partner they receive no recognition but if he has a female partner she becomes ‘lady”. The opposite is also true. If a woman is awarded a damehood or made a Baroness her husband or partner receives no recognition. This cannot continue.

Regardless if you are honoured or not always remember what Abraham Lincoln said;

“Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”

Martin Matthews FRSA was appointed National Leader of Governance in 2012. He resides in Oldham, in Greater Manchester, and works extensively in education and governance. Martin has compiled a longer version of this report, which is available here.

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  • Great piece Martin - you raise lots of good points/issues to consider.

    Having a system to recognise achievement is undoubtedly a good idea in principle, but the practical implementation often loses its way.

    An unpopular Prime Minister in Australia who lost his way, Tony Abbott, was toppled (by his own party) after outraging the Australian public by proposing a knighthood for Prince Philip!


    Australians have mixed views on the honours system but they were pretty much united on this abuse of power and privilege!

    And, as you raise in your piece, a system still referring to Empire has lost its way. It hasn't modernised so opens itself to criticism or even ridicule.