The BBC’s "Alternative Honors List"


Toby Harper is a PhD candidate in modern British history at Columbia University. The working title of his dissertation is "Orders of Merit? The Democratization of the British Honours System, 1917-1994." He blogs on historical topics at:

The British government recently released the names of 287 dead people who had, between 1951 and 1999, declined honors. This was not a voluntary choice on Whitehall’s part. The BBC asked the government to release the information through a Freedom of Information request, and the Cabinet Office was reluctantly obliged to cede. Various news outlets in Britain and abroad commented on the list (the New York Times featured the story), pointing out that various famous people, such as C.S. Lewis, L.S. Lowry and Roald Dahl, had at one point or another declined an honor from the British government.

Such news outlets have focused on the distinction of a select few names in the list, and speculated on the reasons for refusals, most of which, unless the person themselves wrote about their refusal, remain unclear. We know that Benjamin Zephaniah refused an OBE (Officer of the British Empire, not to be confused, as the New York Times does, with the Order of the British Empire, of which it is the fourth rank) because he made it clear that he was maddened by its name. We can guess that C.S. Lewis refused his CBE (Commander of the British Empire—the third rank) because he did not want to be publicly connected with politics. People have rejected honors for all manner of reasons, from abashed modesty to wounded pride at not being offered a high enough rank.

However, what is important about this list is not so much its composition as its brevity. Nearly three hundred people over forty years, even excluding those still living, is a tiny proportion of the total honors given out over this time. Roughly two thousand honors have been given out each year since the Second World War. Refusing them has been a rare choice. Compare this to the period immediately after the creation of the Order of the British Empire in 1917, when it was tarnished by the liberality (over twenty thousand appointments were made in the five ranks of the order within four years) with which the new order was being given out, its newness, its seemingly low status, and the widespread perception that Lloyd George’s government was corrupt in its distribution of honors. According to official memoranda at the time, the rate of rejection was the highest it had ever been, although even then it was a small minority of total offers.

At the same time, the Order of the British Empire opened the gates for non-elites to be recognized by honors. The other side of the coin of the well-known corruption scandals was that, for the first time, the flood of honors in these years included a much larger profile of the middle class and women, who had previously been excluded from most honors. Critiques of the honors system and of honors lists, then and now, have walked a fine line between promoting exclusivity and legitimately targeting corrupt practices. Few would now disregard the importance of the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon and their seriousness as artists, but at the time of their appointment as MBEs (Members of the British Empire—the fifth and bottom rank) in 1965 many scorned the award as political and without merit. In the former sense, if not the latter, they were right: Prime Minister Harold Wilson pushed through their honors against civil service opposition.

The Order of the British Empire remains the most widely distributed honor within Britain, but with a couple of minor exceptions, over the last fifty years new nations within the former empire have developed their own honors systems. This has been a slow, piecemeal process, and in some places divergence from the British orders happened remarkably late. Many of these also remain tied to the British system because their head of state is still the Queen, who is also the ‘fount’ of honor. In New Zealand, for example, the New Zealand Order of Merit effectively took the place of the Order of the British Empire in 1996. One of the peculiarities of the honors system since 1945 has been the growth and expansion of the Order of the British Empire within the UK, even as its international scope slowly faded. Obsolescence has made what can be a politically offensive name quaint more than ridiculous for many in Britain. It has taken on the image of an innocent chivalric tradition rather than a paternalistic expression of colonial supremacy in the space of less than a century.

Aside from the famous names (which make up a minority of any list), this information release is revealing in other ways. One of the most important—but not immediately apparent—aspects of the British honors system is the secrecy that obscures who is offered honors, why they are offered them, and how the system works in general. More than many other (arguably more important) aspects of running the government, groups within the British Civil Service care about honors, and as a result is secretive about them. Privacy legislation in the UK contains special regulations around honors, protecting documents relating to honors from Freedom of Information requests if they contain information about living people. Even though these regulations cannot justify concealing information about dead potential recipients, the BBC nevertheless had to lobby for over a year for the release of these 287 names.

Why the secrecy? One factor is that for much of the last two hundred years honors have been important to civil servants because they themselves have been some of the main recipients. When the creation of the Order of the British Empire vastly expanded the total number of honors and the range of different professions and social classes who were eligible for them, it was initially envisaged as a way of rewarding people not employed by the government for war work. But by 1923 it defaulted to drawing first (although never exclusively) from the ranks of the civil service, like the older Orders of the Bath, the Star of India, and Saint Michael and Saint George. Civil servants have wanted to keep the details of the process for selecting honors secret party to obscure their centrality to the whole process. While politicians and the monarch are the more visible figures in the process of honors selection, civil servants have tended to be the most important.

When this ideal of privacy is ignored, it tends to be by politicians for political reasons. New Zealand center-left Prime Minister John Key recently told a radio host that he had offered the victorious Rugby World Cup captain Richie McCaw a KNZM (Knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit—New Zealand’s version of the knighthood), which McCaw declined. This violation of McCaw’s privacy was flagrantly political, but the New Zealand civil service and media are not so heavily invested in or familiar with the tradition of privacy. Key got away with it in a way David Cameron never could. This followed on from Key’s decision in 2009 to revive the titles of knight and dame, which Helen Clark’s previous center-left government had phased out. It is too early to know whether Key’s extravagantly political use of honors will undermine or excessively politicize the system within New Zealand.

The most important justification for this secrecy is that by keeping the honors process mysterious, opaque, mystical and enchanted, its administrators ensure that it retains its status in the minds of social elites and the general public. Choosing two lists a year worth of worthy names for honors is a bureaucratic, disenchanted process spiced with politics. Yet when Britons go to Buckingham Palace to receive their medal from the Queen, they often see the honor in terms of a bond between them and the Crown, willingly ignoring the political and bureaucratic machinery (and sometimes the public controversy concerning honors to pop stars and corrupt businessmen) that actually powers the honors list. Honors attract attention and cynicism from some because of their political connotations. But for people and interest groups who were once at the fringes they have, for better or worse, been very important as an integrative force into British society. For an institution that resembles a feudal relic, refers explicitly to Britain’s shameful colonial legacy, implicitly enshrines class distinctions, and is tainted by politics, the modern British honors system remains remarkably popular.

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