LONDON — A deft touch of the queen's sword on an unresisting British shoulder can turn men into knights and women into dames. But in the future, royal distinctions are to be tightly rationed.
Britain's new prime minister, Tony Blair, has fired the opening salvo in what is expected to become a sustained broadside against the political honors system, described by one of his Labour Party officials as "an archaic overhang from a class-ridden past."
Fresh from his May 1 election victory, Mr. Blair angered John Major, his Conservative predecessor, by telling him last week that he was canceling the long-standing convention of allowing outgoing prime ministers to award knighthoods and other honors to members of Parliament for political services.
There is a hierarchy of honors awarded each year by the queen, ranging from the most-prestigious peer of the realm to the member of the Order of the British Empire. In between the two are knighthoods, bestowing the honorific "sir."
So when Queen Elizabeth II publishes her Birthday Honors List on Saturday, it will not contain the names of long-serving Tory members of Parliament who lost seats in the election. Blair's recent efforts are only aimed at eliminating such political honors, however. Merit-based honors remain acceptable.
Mr. Major is said by his aides to be furious, but Blair's decision to scrap political honors has been widely welcomed by the British media.
Even the Daily Mail, which staunchly supports the Conservatives, conceded that in recent years honors had "ended up going to large donors to the Tory party and to loyal time-servers."
A political payoff
Blair's attack on awards for political services slices away the most controversial part of Britain's antediluvian honors system.
In the early 1900s, knighthoods and peerages were bought and sold, but that has been illegal since 1925. Political patronage on a large scale still exists, however.
When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, she lost no time in rewarding political friends with knighthoods and other distinctions. According to The (London) Times, in the more than 12 years Baroness Thatcher was prime minister, she awarded knighthoods to 144 industrialists, two-thirds of whom had given funds to the ruling Conservative Party.
Major continued the tradition of doling out knighthoods as a form of political patronage.
In the current House of Commons, 20 out of 164 Conservative MPs have knighthoods. This compares with one Liberal Democrat knight out of 46 MPs, and one Labour knight out of 419 MPs.
Blair's unhappiness with political honors intensified about a year ago when Major named 30 new knights.
Three had headed companies that had given money to the Conservatives, three were Conservative backbenchers, and at least three more were open supporters of the then-ruling party.
Among the rest were half-a-dozen civil servants and state functionaries who were awarded knighthoods on grounds of their seniority.
Blair is said by his officials to be reviewing the convention by which top civil servants expect to be given a knighthood or other honor as a matter of administrative routine.
More honors for 'ordinary' citizens
Ironically, Major, who is proud of his humble origins, can claim credit for having tried to democratize part of the honors system.
In 1994, he decided that more awards should go to schoolteachers, charity workers, postal workers, refuse collectors, and other "ordinary" citizens who have given conspicuous service to the community. He instituted a system by which the friends and acquaintances of such people can now write to the prime minister, urging that they be rewarded with an honor.
Nowadays larger numbers of comparatively humble citizens are surprised to receive official letters in their mailboxes telling them that they have been given an award. Such people may be made a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). But here, too, Blair's political allies say, the new prime minister would like to make some changes. Many of the awards date back to a previous era.
"The title MBE implies that there is still an empire to be a member of," says Labour backbencher Dennis Skinner. "But there isn't."