Honours and Industry

In an effort to be more open about the twice-yearly honours awards, the Cameron government published the criteria supposedly used in deciding which individuals get what.

Any member of the public can nominate anyone, using a form available on www.gov.uk, but the vast majority of awards – senior awards especially – are made through official and semi-official channels. In its glory days as Britain’s largest manufacturing company, Imperial Chemical Industries even had a two-man group charged with nominating suitable ICI staff – so many MBEs for plant operators, a smaller number of OBEs for higher grades, and occasional nominations for the senior awards of CBEs and above for senior staff. Most Chairmen of ICI, like most full generals, most permanent under-secretaries in the Civil Service, regius professors at Oxford and Cambridge and other senior public appointments, today end up with knighthoods, tending to fuel the suspicion that they go with the job, rather than (say) exceptional performance in the job or outside it.

Published Criteria

These have attracted current interest because apparently a certain individual believes he should have received a knighthood, rather than just the (untitled) honour he already has.

To gain any award the published criteria are that the individual should have made a significant contribution to public life through:

  1. Outstanding achievement in their professional life
  2. Exemplary public service
  3. Entrepreneurship

While certain achievements, such as winning a Nobel Prize for one of the three specified sciences are pretty certain to bring a knighthood under criterion 1),clearly most of the above criteria are pretty subjective. Arguably international sports achievements, like the Nobel Prizes, are defined by non-British judgements, but senior awards in the public sector are not subject to such searching international examination.

Distribution of Honours between Public and Private Sectors

In the Cameron government’s 2015 honours, approximately 85% of all the senior honours (CBE and above) went to the public sectors, including charities and teaching. Twenty percent of people work in the public sectors, 80% in the private sectors, of which around 13% work in the production industries, responsible for 60% of the UK’s exports, all of the home production of goods – food, clothes, materials, fuels, vehicles, mechanical and electronic equipment, consumer goods – all subject to constant, relentless pressure of international competition, and on which we all depend.

Huge Discrepancy between Public and Private Sectors

The figures above mean that people in the public sector have 22 times the chance of a senior award as people in the private sector. Ah, say the public sector defenders of the system, the industry people are just doing their jobs. If their performance is exceptional, they are rewarded by increases of salary and bonuses[1].

This distinction may possibly have had some validity 50 years ago, when public sector jobs were seen as safe, pedestrian and not very well paid. The first two characteristics may still be true – but with over 1,000 appointed or nominated people in the public sector earning more than the Prime Minister, in some cases more than three times as much, this is absolutely not the case today.

The Real Issues about Honours

All countries have honours systems. They express what the countries’ governments value. The British systems is by far the most voluminous: if only senior awards are counted, it would seem that Britain has more talented, achieving people than the rest of the large OECD countries put together. Self-praise on this scale is deeply unattractive, and given the huge discrepancy between the private (production) and public (administration) sectors, economically very inefficient.

What is to be done?

    • Nominations for honours should be removed from the Prime Minister advised by the Civil Service, and vested in a publicly visible Nomination Committee with nominators serving for a limited period (say 4 years).


    • Only those with clear-cut distinction of an international standard would be eligible for the awards bearing a title for life, i.e. knighthoods and baronies.


    • At all levels of award, criteria 1) to 3) would be amended to stress that the award is for achievement beyond that for which they are paid.


    • The phrase “public service” in criterion 2) should be replaced by “service to the nation”.


    • The number of awards should, over time, be reduced to about a tenth of the present number (2,500 annually) in all classes, starting with the title-bearing awards.

    The issue of honours is separate from the issue of the future of the House of Lords, though linked to it via the appointment of baronies in the present honours list (see Reforming the Honours System and Designs for Modern Britain on this site).

    End Note

    [1] Paradoxically one might think that a tiny number of people who have become seriously rich in the private sector, have been given knighthoods seemingly because they are rich.

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