Distributing status: The evolution of state honours in Western Europe

Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
AuthorEdward C. Page
Distributing status: The evolution of state
honours in Western Europe
Samuel Clark
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016, 520 pp., £41 (hb), ISBN: 9780773546844
Clark starts with the apparent paradox that the modernityof industrialized societies lies in part in their reliance on
universalist, ascriptive values, yet governments, businesses, churches and all sorts of bodies are dishing out record
numbers of honorific awards. Clark concentrates on the question of state awards in Western Europe and aims to
understand why they have developed the way they have.
There is a bit of ground clearing in the early chapters when he explores two general explanations for the exis-
tence of honours. One is that the rise of the bourgeoisie led to an increased demand for honours as honours were
no longer the sole preserve of the aristocracy. The other, somewhat contradictory of the first, suggests that honours
are a throwback to older aristocratic systems and are therefore more widely used in systems with strong persisting
aristocratic traditions (the UK) and less widespread where such traditions never existed or died out (e.g., Canada
and the US). Although neither of these explanations is dismissed in its entirety, Clark points out the inadequacies of
both. The demands of the bourgeoisie cannot explain the growth in numbers of different types of honours or in
numbers of people awarded honours because significant expansions in both these dimensions were experienced in
earlier timesabove all, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The system of honours cannot be regarded as a
fading relic of a bygone aristocratic age since it not only remains large but is also being maintained, developed and
Clark replaces these theories with a perspective rather than a theory. Honours are essentially related to the
challenges posed by governing a modern bureaucratic state. The conditions for collective action have changed. This
covers a range of issues: growth in population, weakening beliefs in traditional bases of obligation, political centrali-
zation, increasing size of bureaucracies, changing organization of the military, and a culture of improvement and
reformamong other things. Governments have to find a range of ways of meeting the challenges these changes
pose to collective action; among the large number of instrumentsthey developed was an expansion of the honours
system. They appropriatedthe cultural powerthat had grown up around the earlier systems of honours in the sev-
enteenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (p. 76) and developed, modified and applied it in the twentieth to
mobilize citizens and organize collective action. The honours kept some of their earlier cultural connotations of self-
less service and bravery along with their sometimes archaic names. The functions of these honours as a tool of the
state included legitimizing government action (such as colonial honours to legitimize imperial regimes), motivating
individuals to serve the state and some honours even imposed or encouraged norms of behaviour on their recipients
and had a disciplinefunction.
Clark's argument is very well sustained over 13 chapters which contain significant detail about the different
forms of honours established since the medieval period. The empirical discussion does not cover much after the
1930s and concentrates especially on the nineteenth century. Given Clark's emphasis on examining their evolution
and explaining how honours systems survived into the modern period, this is quite understandable. We have fasci-
nating discussion of a wide range of features of the development of honours regimes. For example, Clark deals with
Public Administration. 2017;95:11131118. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/padm © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 1113

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