In the 20th century, the British Crown appointed around 100,000 people to honours and titles. Throughout the century, this system expanded to include different kinds of people. Toby Harper writes that the process nevertheless continues to be confusing and tells us little about who honorees really are.
Suppose you meet a man on the train who introduces himself as ‘Sir James’. What does this mean? He could have done some distinguished professional or philanthropic service; he could be a famous artist; he could be a retired civil servant who won his title through long service; he could be a major political donor to one of a number of different governments in the Commonwealth; or he might not in fact be a knight but a baronet, and is thus entitled to call himself ‘Sir’ because he is the head of a male line whose ancestor won the title (probably through large donations to some government at some point in the last five hundred years). Alternatively, he could have changed his name so that his first name is “Sir” in the hope of getting respect, attention, more frequent upgrades to first class on flights, or some other rumored advantage to having a title. He could also simply be lying. Titles have many sources, few of which reflect anything on the personality or talents of its owner.
The knighthood, the damehood, and the baronetcy are three of the many different titles and honours that the British government gives to its citizens. The terminology and hierarchies of this system are confusing, with a deep, complicated history. The Order of the Garter, the oldest and one of the most exclusive of these honours, dates back to the 14th century, but most of the system’s components are more recent creations. For example, in the aftermath of the formation of the largest single order of chivalry – the Order of the British Empire – in 1917, many recipients were confused by the names of the medals they received. Working class recipients of the low-ranking Medal of the Order of the British Empire reasonably thought that they were entitled to use the letters OBE after their name. In fact, the medal granted no rank, no formal membership in an order of chivalry, and no precedence: it was for working-class heroes. The right to use the postnominals OBE fell to middle class ‘Officers of the British Empire’, which was the fourth rank of the order.
Many different factors shape the choices the British state makes in honouring people. Broad shifts of policy, individual political debts, and opaque personal preferences all play a part. Public nominations are and have been an important part of the system, but there is a long route from nomination to selection. Multiple different parties are involved, including politicians (especially whips), civil servants in various departments, and royal servants, even perhaps the monarch themselves. The greatest amount of control has traditionally rested in the hands of civil servants in the Treasury and, more recently, the Cabinet Office. There are usually far more nominees for honours than spots available. This shortage is artificial, with numbers kept low in order to maintain exclusivity.
Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century committees of civil servants have done the main part of the work of assessing nominations from government departments, processing public nominations, and integrating political priorities. The scale and rank of honours that they have worked with has been shaped by centralized policies that were only occasionally been subject to direct political scrutiny and change, although exceptions to this pattern created major shifts in who received what. From these committees honours lists go to the Prime Minister’s office, where a few names are added and subtracted, then successful nominees are invited to accept the honour, and finally the monarch signs off the lists for public proclamation, usually twice yearly, in the London Gazette. Although the monarchy’s role is limited, recipients and the wider public closely associate honours with royalty because of their symbolism and because of honours investitures, where recipients receive the medals from the hands of a royal.
Some people decline the opportunity to take on honours, out of principle, because of political objections to the current government, or for more obscure reasons. Reasons for rejecting honours have been almost as diverse as the reasons for giving them, and are secret: whether or not someone reveals they were offered an honour but declined is at their discretion because this is one of the many secrets about honours that the government defends vigorously. Some artists, musicians and anti-monarchists have declined them for political reasons. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah rejected an OBE in 2003 because of the imperial connotations of the order’s name, and because he disagreed with the government’s social policies.
Others rejected titles for more personal reasons. Physicist A.V. Hill rejected a knighthood in 1941 out of principle and aesthetics. He railed against the competition and enmity that he alleged knighthoods introduced among scientists. At the same time, had Hill, as he went by with friends and colleagues, been knighted he would have become known as ‘Sir Archibald’, and would have thus had a first name he disliked forcibly exposed to the public and to friends. P.G. Wodehouse made a similar joke in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954) about a character named Mr. Trotter, who dodged a knighthood because he did not want his embarrassing first name (Lemuel) exposed.
Jokes like these abound in the lives of honours recipients, their friends, and those who aspired to win honours. The system has been and continues to be a topic of fun and levity. But behind the jokes is a serious business. In modern, anonymous, fragmented societies these centralized systems are all the more important because they aim to bring people together under one set of rules and labels that have widespread currency. Contemporary societies readily confuse and conflate success, greatness, size, fame, and volume with rightness. In the last few years this confusion has had increasingly absurd results, but it has been around for a long time, in many different cultures and contexts. This is why it is so important to understand exactly how modern states celebrate their heroes, and especially to understand the limitations, omissions and other quirks of this process – to disenchant the mysticism of honours. The process by which Britain has chosen and continues to choose its honorees has been opaque, confusing, and poorly understood. Sir James may be a modern knight, but that tells you little about who he really is.
Toby Harper is Assistant Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. His forthcoming book, ‘From Servants of the Empire to Everyday Heroes: The British Honours System in the Twentieth Century‘ will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2020.
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