Her Majesty saves the Wales contingent
In honour of the royal visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to Canada, and her presence here in the national capital on Canada Day, LOON takes a seditious but lighthearted look back at that hallmark of British imperialism and class stratification, the royal “honours” that are bestowed semi-annually on “leading” members of the world of arts, entertainment, journalism, science, public service, finance, military achievement and plain old upper class twittery.
This year, for example, saw the Queen’s “birthday honours” pronounced upon a varied and odd grouping of entertainers that included Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and, er, Welsh musician and producer John Cale.
The British “honours system” is ostensibly about recognizing the bravery, achievements or long service of persons to the United Kingdom and comprises three distinct categories–honours for achievement and service, decorations for specific deeds, and medals to honour bravery or long service or meritorious conduct.
The modern tradition dates back to the Norman conquest and the founding of the “order of the Garter” in the mid-fourteenth century by King Edward III.
The “Queen’s Birthday Honours,” is the name given to the ceremony held in January and June every year at which the royal honours are dispensed.
The 650-year-0ld awards system was revamped in 2004 and 2005 to make them more up-to-date in an age, may we be so impertinent to suggest, of increased questioning of the relevance of the aristocracy and the monarchy to modern Britain.
Average of 3,500 nominations per year
To that end, the revised and updated “honours” process strives to be “transparent, independent and autonomous” and incorporates a structure of “specialist committees” for each of the eight honours award categories: the Arts and Media, Community, Voluntary and Local Services, Education, Sport, Health, Science and Technology, State, and the Economy.
Nominations for royal honours–which average around 3,500 annually according to the official honours website–”are usually made by members of the public and others using the form available on the Honours and Appointments web site and from government departments.”
People nominating candidates must provide a minimum of two letters of support.
In the three-year period ending in 2008, the royal honours’ specialist committees looked at just under eleven thousand citations–vetted award nominations–of which about 40 per cent were from individual members of the public or from public or private sector organizations or had received support from members of the public.
There are five classes of award, each with its own “broad criteria”:
- Companion of Honour: a pre-eminent and sustained contribution in the arts, science, medicine, or government.
- Knight/Dame: a pre-eminent contribution in any field, usually, but not exclusively at national level, or in a capacity which will be recognised by peer groups as inspirational and significant nationally, and which demonstrates sustained commitment;
- Commander of the British Empire (CBE): a prominent national role of a lesser degree, or a conspicuous leading role in regional affairs or making a highly distinguished, innovative contribution in his or her area of activity;
- Officer of the British Empire (OBE): a distinguished regional or county-wide role in any field, including notable practitioners known nationally;
- Member of the British Empire (MBE): service in and to the community of a responsible kind which is outstanding in its field; or very local “hands-on” service which stands out as an example to others. In both cases awards illuminate areas of dedicated service which merit public recognition.
According to the awards’ official website, “the Government’s priorities are for honours to be awarded to those serving the community in the fields of Education, Health, Law and Order and the Voluntary Sector.”
Recognizing “unsung heroes”
However, thanks to former PM Tony Blair, there is now recognition and acceptance that “a significantly higher proportion of honours should go to unsung heroes.”
In the event of a tie between honours candidates “of equal merit in their particular field of activity, priority is given to candidates who are selflessly committed to voluntary or charitable work, or who may be undertaking voluntary or unpaid activity in connection with their ‘day’ job, in a way which is for the benefit of the wider community.”
Each of the eight honours’ specialist committees is given a yearly quota of awards to bestow at each of the five levels. The quotas are set in accordance with the incumbent government’s “priorities”, how many people work in the sector in question and “the need to be able to spread knowledge of, and access to honours widely across the community.”
A “Main Honours Committee” made up of government and outside experts in these fields presides over the nomination and award selection process and is responsible for putting forward the names of award nominees tendered by the eight specialist committees.
The committee chairs are “all acknowledged experts in their own fields and are independent of government.”
The cabinet secretary of the incumbent government chairs the Main Honours committee and to that extent the input of the Prime Minister of the day is considerable.
Officially, however, the PM does not add to or subtract from the nominees list but, rather, “in line with past practice…gives strategic guidance to the honours committees as to the Government’s priorities for honours.”
The list of names put forward by the PM to the Queen are then subject to Her Majesty the Queen’s Last Word.
In the final phase of the honours process–a phone call is made to the prospective honours recipient in which he or she is coyly and non-commitally asked whether they would accept such an honour “if” it were bestowed.
It’s at that stage that a remarkable number of candidates bow out, that is, decline the honours, although they are expected not to breathe a word of the offer (or its refusal) to a living soul.
The most famous recipient to disown the honours may be John Lennon–in 1969 he sent back the MBE he was granted with his fellow Beatles in 1965 to Queen Elizabeth with a letter in which he wrote: “Your Majesty, I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon of Bag.”
But a number of others have rejected the royal honours. To date, the list of the so-called “honours’ refuseniks” includes an impressive lineup of actors, musicians and artists who, for one good reason or another, declined the royal stamp of approval, regardless of its new, revised “democratic” production values:
Joseph Conrad (author), Nigella Lawson (TV chef), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders (comediennes), Honor Blackman (actor), Graham Greene (author), John le Carré (author), Aldous Huxley (author), Evelyn Waugh (author), J.B. Priestley (author), Roald Dahl (author), Philip Larkin (poet), Trevor Howard (actor), Alastair Sim (actor), L.S. Lowry (painter), Albert Finney (actor), Richard Lambert (newspaper editor), Vanessa Redgrave (actor), Frank Auerbach (artist), David Bowie (musician/actor), Alan Bennett (playwright), John Cleese (actor.author), Bernie Ecclestone (F1 racing), Ken Loach (film director), Kenneth Branagh (actor/film director), Paul Weller (musician), Malcolm McDowell (actor), George Melly (musician), C.S. Lewis (author), Geraldine McEwan (actor), Jim Broadbent (actor),
Criticism of the honours system has not been sparing, least of all from those who have spurned it.
Said writer J.G. Ballard of the honours system:
“Thousands of medals are given out in the name of a non-existent empire. It makes us look a laughing stock and encourages deference to the crown. I think it is exploited by politicians and always has been. Half the honours are given to people in the armed forces and civil service as a way of keeping their loyalty. I can’t take it seriously.”
Actor Albert Finney turned down the vaunted honours not once, but twice. In 1980 he declined the MBE and again in 2000 he refused a knighthood, insisting that the arcane awards “perpetuated snobbery.”
Benjamin Zephaniah, a Rastafarian poet, rejected an O.B.E. award in 2009 because he said that the honours represented colonialism and Britain’s involvement in slavery.
Unlike many “refuseniks” who complied with the request to keep “mum” about their refusal, Zephaniah was outspoken and public in condemning the award he was offered because it symbolized “thousands of years of brutality – it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised”.
Zephaniah is also astute in pointing out the underlying motivation behind the giving of the “honours system” is that “it gives OBEs to cool rock stars, successful businesswomen and blacks who would be militant in order to give the impression that it is inclusive.”
As the poet stated recently in an interview:
On the day I should have received the OBE I was with a lot of deprived kids; I did that to say: this is where my heart is. I don’t want to do government or monarchy-approved poetry. We need the freedom to be critical of these institutions and once you become part of them, that’s very difficult. I like to root myself with everyday people. And to a certain extent I like to blend into the background.
Oh, and before we forget, Happy Birthday, Canada and belated birthday greetings, Your Majesty!