Opinion Articles


Deprivation of Honours: a brief history


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This week headlines have been filled with the news that the former Chief Executive of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Fred Goodwin, has been stripped of the knighthood he was awarded in the Queen's Birthday Honours of 2004 for 'services to banking'. Comment on the issue has varied from those arguing that this public disgrace is thoroughly deserved to others saying that removal of honours should only follow conviction for a criminal offence.

The royal prerogative of granting honours is well known, the prerogative of deprivation less so. The simple principle is that an honour granted by the Sovereign may be withdrawn by the Sovereign, though there are some restrictions in practice. In the case of peerages, apart from some doubtful medieval precedents, and the Titles Deprivation Act 1917, designed to deprive some of King George V's German relations of their British titles, it is generally accepted that deprivation can only follow attainder for treason. 'Attainder', meaning taintedness, is part of English Common law, under which someone convicted of a serious crime could be declared 'attainted', thus nullifying his or her civil rights. Any peerage would revert to the Crown. In addition, the person's blood was 'corrupted', so that his issue could not inherit from or through him.

Though provisions to permit deprivation on conviction for other offences were included in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill 2009, these fell foul of Parliamentary time when the 2010 election was called. In consequence, Jeffrey Archer remains Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare despite having served a prison sentence for perjury, and both Lord Hanningfield and Lord Taylor of Warwick retain their peerages after serving time for expenses fraud.

Provision for forfeiture of the Victoria Cross was included in the Royal Warrant of 1856 that created the award, and there have been eight such forfeitures. Edward St John Daniel, awarded the VC as a 17-year-old midshipman during the Indian Mutiny, was sentenced to forfeit the decoration after being convicted of desertion by court-martial in 1861. Michael Murphy, another Indian Mutiny VC and a farrier in the 17th Lancers, lost the award in 1872 for the theft of a load of hay. However, in 1920 King George V made clear his view that there should be no further forfeitures: 'Even a murderer should be able to wear his VC on the scaffold.'

Sir Edgar Speyer (1862-1932), a naturalised American-born financier of German extraction, who was a generous benefactor of medical charities and patron of music, financing the Proms in their early years, was granted a baronetcy in During the First World War he became a target of anti-German sentiment and in 1915 offered to relinquish both his baronetcy and his position as a Privy Counsellor. This was refused on the basis that no mechanism existed. However, subsequently, and perhaps hypocritically, following an investigation held in camera, Speyer's naturalisation was revoked, as was his membership of the Privy Council. The baronetcy remained. He was never convicted of any offence, nor were the allegations ever tested in court. As far as we know, the possibility of revocation of a baronetcy has not arisen since.

While there are no formal restrictions on the prerogative of deprivation, normally it is exercised only after a criminal conviction. A significant proportion of OBEs and MBEs are awarded to persons doing voluntary work, and there is a small incidence of deprivations recorded in the London Gazette after the recipient has been convicted of embezzling the organisation concerned. The 2nd Baron Spens was sentenced to two years' imprisonment in 1974 for theft from the Federation of British Carpet Manufacturers, of which he was founder and director, and deprived of the MBE he had earlier been awarded for services to the carpet industry.

Deprivations of knighthoods are rare. The most famous case is probably Roger Casement, knighted in 1911 for his services as a diplomat, and executed for treason in 1916. Joseph Kagan, knighted in 1970 and granted a life peerage in 1976, was stripped of his knighthood in 1980 after conviction for tax fraud, though, like Lord Spens, he could not be deprived of his peerage and continued to speak in the Lords until his death. There have been a number of cases where foreign heads of state awarded British knighthoods have been deprived of them for political reasons. These include Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary and other 'enemy' Knights of the Garter, whose names were struck from the Rolls of the Order in 1915. Emperor Hirohito of Japan, was deprived of the Garter during the Second World War, but later restored, and Benito Mussolini, who was deprived of a knighthood after declaring war on Britain in 1940.

Where does this leave Mr Goodwin, who has not been convicted of any criminal offence? It is reported that the Honours Forfeiture Committee considers not only cases of criminal conviction, but also instances where an individual has been struck off or censured by his professional body. While Goodwin has been heavily criticised in many quarters for mismanagement and want of judgement while at RBS, neither of these is applicable.

Should forfeiture be restricted only to those convicted of offences? This would have the advantage of clarity and consistency but, arguably, leave anomalies in the rare cases where, as here, a person's actions have had major adverse consequences for the nation, but are outside the relatively narrow confines of criminality. It appears that the deprivation of Goodwin's knighthood is, in good part, due to public disgruntlement at both his actions while at RBS and the honour granted before the banking crisis. Should popular sentiment be a factor in the decision making around such forfeitures? Or is the honours system now so debased that it matters not who receives or is deprived of them?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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