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From Servants of the Empire to Everyday Heroes

The British Honours System in the Twentieth Century


Tobias Harper


Oxford: University Press, 2020

Hardcover. xi+298 p. ISBN 978-0198841180. £60


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London





In the course of the twentieth century about one hundred thousand people received honours and titles from the British Crown in a system that expanded and became ever more complex. However, from being a thoroughly elitist expression of recognition, it came to embrace ‘everyday heroes’. Thus, during 2020 a crop of former cabinet ministers, military personnel, medical doctors, academics, sportsmen and women, actors, charity workers, and countless others were duly honoured. Perhaps the most remarkable was the appointment of Captain Thomas Moore who was invested on 17 July as a Knight Bachelor by Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle in response to a public petition. Sir Tom had aimed at raising £1,000 for medical charities during the COVID-19 pandemic by walking one hundred 25-metre laps of his garden prior to his hundredth birthday on 30 April. This sum was massively exceeded, with over 1,500,000 individuals contributing close on £33,000,000. Sir Tom’s appointment was exceptional and surely well deserved. Rather than being the outcome of bureaucratic decisions in Whitehall, it was the result of popular acclaim. By contrast, other honours may appear to be awarded as a matter of routine or custom. For example, Keir Starmer, now leader of the Labour Party, was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 2014 following his service as Director of Public Prosecutions. In his present role, he prefers not to be referred to as ‘Sir Keir’.

Confusion reigns in many minds about who is permitted to use the title ‘Sir’. Many people think that the Beatles were awarded knighthoods in October 1965, when in fact they were made Members of the British Empire (MBE). And, of course, an MBE must not be confused with the lesser award of a British Empire Medal. The oldest honour in the present system dates back to the fourteenth century but others have been created since 1900. Historian Tobias (Toby) Harper casts valuable light on this often misunderstood system. He was educated in New Zealand and the USA, with his book emerging from his doctorate defended in 2014 at Columbia University, New York. His present position is at Arizona State University where he teaches British and European history. Harper argues that over the decades and centuries, the British honours system:

served to shape and reinforce fundamental assumptions about social worth and the moral economy of service to the state, nation and empire. [It is] an institution that affects a dignified, secretive, formal exterior while also being a focus for gossip, rumour, scandal, snobbery, and suspicion [2].

But, as the case of Sir Tom Moore illustrates perfectly, the honours system can also lead ‘to outpourings of community pride, celebration and joy, which extend beyond the individual who has won the award’ [2].

The present complex system of medals, orders of chivalry and other awards has evolved from what were mostly military processes of recognition in medieval and early modern Europe to expand across civilian life in recent times. However, during much of its existence, ‘the British government and Crown saw [the award of honours] as one of the main currencies for purchasing the loyalty of the people’ [2]. Thus, the large majority of honours went to agents of the state military men, civil servants and faithful politicians whose service was duly recognised and rewarded. Until after World War II, the system was committed to an imperial as well as a domestic project for the creation of a loyal trans-imperial elite. By the 1960s, the imperial dimension of honours was collapsing as former colonial territories rejected the established orders of chivalry and devised their own systems of national recognition that were totally, or in some cases partially, separated from the British model.

During the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century the British honours system was run by a small group of elite politicians and bureaucrats, with input from the Royal Household. The present book is about ‘the triumph and partial defeat of the idea that experts in Whitehall were best qualified to judge which kind of citizens of Britain and the British Empire most deserved recognition from the monarch’ [7]. Nominations from agents of the British establishment, including the armed forces, the Anglican Church, scientific societies and universities, were sorted by appropriate branches of the Civil Service: the War Office, Foreign Office, Home Office, and above all the Treasury, which strove to constrain the number of awards each year. Politicians played an important but secondary role in the award of honours but this did not stop some of them pushing ‘the boundaries of traditional practice, as defined by other politicians and the civil service’ [7], in order to reward their allies or sponsors. Following the severance of former colonies from Whitehall control and the impact of profound social change in post-war Britain, the honours system became more open. Nonetheless:

The entrenched system  of control over honours by secret Whitehall committees survived assault by politicians and the public in Britain until the early 1990s, when it was reshaped, although civil service committees retain more control over quotas and other aspects of day-to-day honours policy than any other group [7].

Individuals were not supposed to petition for themselves or for individuals close to them, but this did not stop certain politicians or Indian princes doing so. David Lloyd George’s ‘cash for honours’ scandal following World War I was especially notorious in this respect, but appointments to honours made under Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and other prime ministers have not escaped criticism. Successful candidates are informed by letter from the prime minister (or governor in the case of colonies). Announcements then follow in a supplement to the London Gazette, with official awards taking place at Buckingham Palace or – in the past – at the residence of the colonial governor or viceroy. These occasions often involve meeting the Queen or a senior member of the royal family and are, of course, ‘the most memorable and most emotionally impactful stage of the process’ for many recipients [8]. Such ‘theatrical’ events surely reflect where honour, respect, and admiration already exist, but cynics dismiss them as part of ‘a vain game of political patronage that reinforces a quasi-feudal social order’ [14]. Each year, some appointees choose not to accept the awards being offered for a variety of moral and political reasons.

In six thoroughly documented chapters, filled with serious scholarship and fascinating stories, Toby Harper charts how the system evolved from ‘honouring servants of the empire to everyday heroes’. Not venturing into the controversial world of the peerage, he demonstrates how new orders were created in the early twentieth century, with the Order of the British Empire (OBE) extending ‘far deeper into non-elite classes in British society than any previous honour’ had done [18]. Indeed, between 1917 and 1921, over 20,000 people in Britain and the Empire were awarded this new honour, giving rise to a substantial backlash from existing elites who perceived such appointments as representing ‘an excessive and diluting – opening up of the fount of honours’ [19]. Political controversies, partly associated with these new awards, helped to bring about the downfall of Lloyd George in 1922.

During the 1920s, professional women successfully campaigned for recognition in the honours system, despite efforts by the Treasury to restrain the volume of annual awards by focusing on (male) civil servants rather than members of the wider public. In the course of World War II, careful control continued, with more emphasis being placed on technocrats and scientists rather than ordinary civilian volunteers. But care was taken to ‘selectively integrate [members of] unions and Labour politicians, rather than resisting their increased importance’ in the nation [19]. After the war, the imperial structure of the honours system gradually disintegrated but British titles continued to make mention of ‘the Empire’, as indeed they still do. During the 1960s and 1970s efforts were made to further broaden the award of honours but such attempts ‘were hindered at every turn by civil and royal servants’ [20]. Not until 1993 were substantial revisions achieved by prime minister John Major and a number of senior bureaucrats who were worried about ‘its reputation as [being] class-based and automatic for civil servants’ [20]. These changes included redirecting awards made in the lower ranks of the Order of the British Empire away from those in professional state service and towards people undertaking exceptional voluntary work.

The narrative structuring From Servants of the Empire to Everyday Heroes is peppered with countless fascinating stories and anecdotes. We learn about the machinations of well-known politicians, senior bureaucrats, scheming Indian maharajahs, naïve painters and decorators, disgruntled scientists, overjoyed sports personalities, and numerous pop stars. Two examples must suffice here. Overlooked for decades, singer Dusty Springfield (Mary O’Brien) received her OBE in hospital shortly before she died. Sir Jimmy Savile was honoured in his lifetime, but when it became clear that he had been a child molester (as well as a prominent charity worker) a call was made to strip him of his knighthood posthumously. The official response was that knights ‘lost their honour upon death’ [249]. Savile had already relinquished his award; case closed.

Fortified by a substantial list of archival sources and published material, as well an array of photographs and political cartoons, From Servants of the Empire to Everyday Heroes is a very welcome addition to the literature that dispels much of the mystery surrounding the British honours system that nonetheless still gives rise to controversy. Recent allocation of senior honours to the brother of the serving prime minister, the spouse of a former prime minister, and a foreign-born newspaper tycoon are cases in point.



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