Could Prince Charles Really Overhaul The Honors System?

Over the weekend, there were reports that the Prince of Wales wants to overhaul the honors system when he becomes king. In her forthcoming biography of the Prince, Time journalist Catherine Mayer claims that Prince Charles believes that honors are being awarded to the wrong people. He is also said to want to make the system less complex and more egalitarian. Now this may be a load of rubbish–Clarence House has already described these claims as “totally false”–but it raises an interesting question: could the Prince of Wales actually revamp the honors system?

Detail of the mantle of a Knight or Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire. Photo by Nicholas Jackson via Wikimedia Commons.

Detail of the mantle of a Knight or Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire. Photo by Nicholas Jackson via Wikimedia Commons.

In theory, the answer is yes. The Sovereign is the ‘fountain of honor’ in Britain, and the royal prerogative gives them almost unlimited power over chivalric orders–they can create new orders or dissolve existing ones, and they are free to change the rules that govern appointments to each individual order. In reality, of course, these sweeping powers are only exercised on the advice of ministers. There are exceptions to this rule (the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Order of Merit, and the Royal Victorian Order are all under the monarch’s personal control), but most orders are effectively controlled by the Government.[1] Prince Charles would therefore need the consent of his ministers before he could implement any wide-scale reforms.

Maybe I’m being too cynical, but I’m not sure that consent would be forthcoming since the status quo provides ministers’ with a wonderful vehicle for patronage.[2] Although efforts have been made in recent years to make the honors system less of an old boys’ club,[3] governments still use the honors system to reward their supporters. Have a long-serving backbencher who never quite made it into government? Give ’em a knighthood! Have you had to push an old friend out of the Cabinet? Make ’em a Companion of Honour! Then there are the kindhearted souls who ‘loaned’ your party money…

And then there are the automatic honors. To give just a few examples: every Justice of the High Court becomes a Knight Bachelor (or, in the case of women, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) upon appointment, while the top civil servant in each department customarily becomes a Knight (or Dame) Commander of the Order of the Bath.[4] The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Prime Minister[5] receive peerages after leaving office. The Lord Mayor of London usually receives an honor on retirement, too.[6] Automatic honors have been criticized for years—MPs have called for the practice to stop on two separate occasions[7]—yet nothing has happened. Ending them would be easy: there’s no law that says certain individuals have to receive an honor, and the Prime Minister is under no obligation to submit anyone’s name to the Queen. But the fact that nothing has been done shows just how difficult it is to bring change of any kind to the honors system.

To make matters even more complicated, some Commonwealth realms continue to award British honors. For example, the governments of Barbados, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Christopher and Nevis all made appointments to the Order of the British Empire in the 2015 New Year’s Honours List.[8] Even though these appointments are announced in the London Gazette, they’re constitutionally separate from the British portion of the list.[9] The constitution of the Order of the British Empire can only be altered on the advice of the British Government,[10] but one could argue that any significant changes to the Order should be cleared with the other nations as a matter of courtesy.[11]

The bottom line is that, whatever Prince Charles thinks of the honors system, he won’t be able to change it by himself. He can try to persuade his ministers, but given the complexities involved, they may well decide that the game isn’t worth the candle.


[1] The Prime Minister is the Sovereign’s main source of honors-related advice, though the Foreign Secretary and the Defense Secretary make recommendations as well.

[2] This is not a new phenomenon. The Order of the Bath was specifically created in order to give Sir Robert Walpole additional means of rewarding his allies in the early eighteenth century. See the remarks of his own son, Horace, in Reminiscences Written in 1788 For the Amusement of Miss Mary and Miss Agnes B***y (London: Thomas Davison, 1819), 37.

[3] Candidates for honors are now vetted by an elaborate system of committes.

[4] When testifying before a House of Commons committee in 2012, Sir Bob Kerslake (then Head of the Home Civil Service) tried to argue that there were no automatic honors for civil servants. The committee took a dim view of this argument, pointing out that the Cabinet Secretary had received a knighthood the day before he took office. They also cited the example of a previous Cabinet Secretary who’d received no fewer than four honors over the course of his civil service career.

[5] This particular custom may be on the way out. Although Margaret Thatcher accepted a peerage, none of her successors have followed her to the House of Lords. Both John Major and Tony Blair have explicitly ruled it out, and it’s hard to see Gordon Brown accepting a peerage when he finally steps down from the Commons in May. Then again, an ex-PM can always change their mind. Harold Macmillan initially declined the then-customary offer of an earldom when he resigned in 1963, but he subsequently had a change of heart and was created Earl of Stockton in 1984.

[6] Lord Mayors traditionally receive knighthoods, but the global financial crisis temporarily put the practice on hold. It was deemed inappropriate to give a high honor to someone connected with the City, so Ian Luder (who served from 2008-2009) only received a CBE. His successor, Nick Anstee, was also offered a CBE, but he allegedly declined it on the grounds that it was too lowly. The custom of awarding knighthoods was revived for Anstee’s successor.

[7] See House of Commons Political Administration Committee, A Matter of Honour: Reforming the Honours System (HC212-I) (London: The Stationery Office, 2004), par. 146-148 and House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, The Honours System (HC19) (London: The Stationery Office, 2012), 37.

[8] The governments of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea also made appointments to the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

[9] The wording of the Gazette notices make it clear that the awards are being made independent of the British Government (e.g, “The Queen has been graciously pleased, on the advice of Her Majesty’s Grenada Ministers, to give orders for the following appointments to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire”).

[10] In other words, while other countries can make appointments to the Order, they can’t change the rules that govern it. The Prime Minister of Belize could not, for example, advise the Queen to make the Order non-titular (i.e., without knighthoods or damehoods).

[11] In 2004, the House of Commons Public Administration Committee recommended that the Order of the British Empire be replaced with an ‘Order of British Excellence.’ There’s no indication, however, that the committee was aware that other nations that still made appointments to the Order.

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