FB's Evidence to the
of Commons Public Administration Select Committee.
Submitted to H of C PASC
19 May 2004
||Doc. No. 2004.005
FB’s Evidence On The
To the House of Commons
Public Administration Select Committee.
evidence is also available on the official United Kingdom Parliament
1. In my submission a statement should
be produced setting out the future scope and objects of the British
state honours system in a society where deference no longer obtains.
This should say that in the future state honours will be awarded
only for acts by citizens which demonstrate quite exceptional
heroism, fortitude or other outstanding qualities. State honours
should no longer be awarded merely for long service in a particular
office or occupation. Nor should they be awarded because the person
has engaged in voluntary unpaid charitable or other service. Such
work ought not to be done in the hope of gaining an honour, which
is an unworthy and demeaning motive likely to distort behaviour
in socially undesirable ways, for example by encouraging kow-towing
and inhibiting the utterance of proper criticism.
2. No state honour should in future be conferred which involves
a title such as Lord, Baroness, Dame or Sir. As in France, use
of such titles by past holders should be permitted at individual
discretion, though not recognised officially (as in invitations
to state banquets). Such titles are not generally bestowed in
other developed countries and encourage the sentiment that Britain
is old-fashioned and even faintly absurd.
3. I would not venture to suggest any change in the honours awarded
by H.M. The Queen personally.
4. I hope I may be forgiven for presenting my remaining evidence
by reproducing Blogs published on my Blogsite.
Tuesday 2 December 2003: The
British Honours system
5. A man whom I shall not name
has insulted Her Britannic Majesty. She offered to honour him
by admitting him to the Most Honourable Order of the British Empire
with an award of the OBE. He rejected the honour with contumely,
saying mention of the British Empire reminded him of slavery.
(He might remember that slavery still flourishes in the part of
Africa with which he is associated.)
6. Why do we British cling to our absurd honours system? The
London Times reported on 25 November 2003 that supporters
of the system argue it rewards talented and ambitious civil servants
otherwise have to be paid much more to prevent them defecting
to the private sector. As I said in a letter the Times
published on 29 November 2003, this suggests that for those civil
servants the prospect of an honour from the Queen is in effect
a bribe which is practicably quantifiable in monetary terms. I
pointed out that in a leading article (same day) the Times
carried this wider, saying an important motivation for many good
deeds is a hoped-for award of honours.
7. I added that, in order not to
prejudice a prospective honour, many people feel obliged to tailor
their conduct accordingly - as J. B. Priestley brilliantly showed
in his play An Inspector Calls. I suggested that this
appeal to vanity is an unhealthy feature of British society, since
its effect is to bolster foolish pride and restrict people’s
freedom of action.
Tuesday 16 December 2003: More
on the Gong Show
8. I suggested in an earlier Blog
that there is a great deal wrong with the British honours system.
Now more evidence has come to light against what the London Sunday
Times for 14 December 2003 calls the Gong Show. A Whitehall
whistleblower has leaked a secret Cabinet Office document showing
that the whole system is run by a committee of seven top civil
servants, with one outsider from the private sector.
9. This small committee decide who
gets what. Their conclusions are sent to the Prime Minister (who
may or may not tinker with them a little). Then they are passed
for information only to Her Majesty the Queen. Constitutionally,
gongs are supposed to be bestowed by Her Majesty, who is our country’s
Fount of Honour. In fact, apart from the few which are within
her gift, she has no say in the matter.
10. The whistleblower says that the
recent award of a knighthood to the ageing rocker Mick Jagger
(of ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ fame) was
given to make Prime Minister Blair look cool. People are not put
on the list if their political stance is anti-Labour.
11. There is of course nothing new
about all this. I recall G K Chesterton’s summing-up in
A Ballade of an Anti-Puritan-
Prince, Bayard would have smashed his sword
To see the sort of knights you dub-
Is that the last of them – O Lord!
Will someone take me to a pub?
Saturday 20 December 2003: Gong
Show Part 3
12. Honours for leading scientists
involved in animal experiments and GM crop research are said to
have been blocked by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales. Following my
two previous blogs on the honours system I am now reporting a
further item in the London Times (18 December 2003). This says
that Colin Blakemore, distinguished Professor of Physiology at
my own alma mater Oxford University, has been refused a knighthood
because of opposition from Prince Charles (who denied the allegation
and declined to comment). It is also reported that H.R.H. objected
to Professor Blakemore’s presence at the launch of a schizophrenia
research centre funded by the charity SANE.
13. The item adds that a second eminent
scientist, Professor Derek Burke, has also been passed over for
honours because of the Prince’s objections. The professor
has been one of the strongest critics of Charles’s opposition
to genetically modified crops.
14. The Daily Mail (same day) reports
that Professor Blakemore is very angry about being excluded from
the honours list. He says-
15. ‘On the one hand, the Government
specifically encourages scientists to engage in controversial
issues. But in private, you are regarded as a pariah, marked down
as unsavoury and your reputation is diminished. To suffer 15 years
of terrorism, as I have, because you are one of the few prepared
to stand up for what Government promotes, and then learn that
this Government shuns you for doing so is deeply demoralising.’
16. Ironically Colin Blakemore is
a long-standing Labour Party member (perhaps he should change
his allegiance). He has endured parcel-bomb attacks and death
threats from animal rights extremists, and been warned by them
that his name is on their murder list. So much for the rule of
17. This Blog is already too long,
but I can’t resist adding some comments made by readers
in yesterday’s Times. Dr John Rae says there’s no
reason other than social climbing why life peers and knights should
not be content with letters after their name. Professor Christopher
Clapham thinks the honours mole I mentioned is so disgusted with
Government duplicity that he is prepared to run great personal
risk in order to reveal it. Finally Dr Michael White wryly says
that ‘whoever blew the whistle on our obnoxious honours
system should be given a medal’.
Tuesday 30 December
2003: Gong Show Part 4
18. The great interest currently
being shown in the honours system encourages me to place on record,
in case it is of use in reforming the system, three instances
where I have had direct experience of its workings.
19. In 1951 I entered what was then
called the Office of Parliamentary Counsel to His Majesty’s
Treasury, where Government Parliamentary Bills are drafted. It
is the custom to make the Head of the Office, the first Parliamentary
Counsel, a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB). ‘Keep your
nose clean’ said Frank Heritage ‘and you will in
due course become First Parliamentary Counsel’. It was
my first day in the Office. Frank, the chief clerk, did some
hasty calculations and told me that the magic year would probably
be 1979. I kept my nose clean, but resigned long before the crucial
date and went on to do other things.
20. No honour has come my way from
21. For two years (1959-61) I was
seconded by the Parliamentary Counsel Office to help Ghana become
a republic and draft its new constitution. At the end of that
time I was officially informed by the Ghana Attorney General,
a former Westminster Labour MP named Geoffrey Bing QC, that I
had been recommended to Whitehall by Dr Nkrumah the President
for the award of an OBE.
22. No honour has come my way from
23. The first time I resigned from
the Office of Parliamentary Counsel (I am the only person who
has resigned twice from that Office, having been invited back
in 1973) it was to take up an appointment as Chief Executive
(then called Secretary) of the Royal Institution of Chartered
Surveyors (RICS), where my predecessor Sir Alexander Killick
DSO MC had been knighted for his services. Like similar professional
bodies, the RICS was required to have a secret committee which
recommended honours to be awarded by the Monarch to chartered
surveyors. I served as its secretary, and recall earnest discussions
about who deserved what and when. This sometimes involved manipulation.
For example it was early decided that the knighthood expected
for the President in 1968, the year of the Institution’s
centenary, should go to Oliver Chesterton MC, a distinguished
relative of the writer G K Chesterton. The RICS had three Vice
Presidents, who then (usually) went on in turn to be President
for a year. It took some manoeuvring to insert Chesterton in
the desired order.
24. No honour has come my way from
25. One thing is clear about the
honours system. If you stay in the same job all your life you
may get an MBE for services to say the Stretchford Fine Arts
and Tramways Committee. If you move around and sit on many stools
(as I must confess I myself have done) you will fall between
all of them.
Monday 5 January 2004: Gong
Show Part 5
26. My final word on the Honours
system is contained in a letter from me published in today’s
London Times Debate:
27. ‘We should not try to
reform what is a rotten system. Instead we should abolish it.
28. ‘[The honours system is
rotten for the following reasons.] It caters to, and inflates,
human vanity. It is used to obtain the services of civil servants,
members of the Armed Forces and other state employees on the
cheap, paying them less than they could get in the private sector.
It degrades the Queen, who nominally [(but not really, except
for a few)], awards the honours. It encourages a debased political
system, where honours are awarded to pay off party hacks and
party donors. It cheapens charity, encouraging people to do charitable
work in the expectation of being honoured rather than for true
philanthropic motives. [It distorts the behaviour of those who
hope for honours, making them kow-tow and ‘keep their noses
29. ‘Instead of bestowing
titles and letters after one’s name (to be used only for
swank), we should borrow from a military tradition which does
neither: mention in despatches. Let those who act beyond the
call of duty be officially mentioned in the nation’s despatches.
That would be honour enough.’
30. The Times left out the bits
in square brackets.
Submitted by Mr Francis Bennion, 11 Blueberry Downs, Coastguard
Road, Budleigh Salterton, East Devon EX9 6NU. Telephone/fax:
01395 442265. Email: email@example.com.
Biographical details Lecturer and tutor in law, St Edmund Hall
Oxford 1951-53; practice at the Bar 1951-1994 (except 1965-73),
including Parliamentary Counsel 1953-65 and 1973-75; Chief Executive,
Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors 1965-68; research associate,
Oxford University Centre for Socio-Legal Studies and Law Faculty
member,1984 to date.
Submitted to House of Commons PASC 19 May 2004
© F.A.R. Bennion 2004