Going for a gong? Don't bother

David Walker explains how the great and the good get sorted for OMs and CBEs
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The Independent Online
In an office in St James's Palace, the health of Dame Ninette de Valois, 98, founder of the Royal Ballet, is a subject of close attention. No one wishes the redoubtable old lady anything but well, but her eventual passing will create a vacancy in one of the world's most exclusive confraternities, the Order of Merit.

On her death the Secretary of the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood will press the button and an elegant machine, oiled by Sir Robert Fellows, the Queen's private secretary, will purr into action. There is no point getting your friends to ring Buckingham Palace: the list of possibles to be admitted to the band of 24 allowed to wear the OM's gorgeous badge on a blue and crimson ribbon is already compiled.

The appointment of Sir John Gielgud to OM, announced last week, had been planned long before the death of the jet- engine pioneer Sir Frank Whittle in August created a gap.

Dame Ninette is in the category that the classically educated clerks who run the honours system refer to as Myceneans - artists. They are the most difficult. Scientists are easy: the Nobel Prize committee and the Royal Society choose the greats. But what distinguishes a John Gielgud from an Alec Guinness (who is also a knight and Companion of Honour)?

The official line is that the OM represents the Queen's personal choice. It is up to her, too, what balance is struck between the vastly different kinds of merit represented on the current list of OMs by historian C V Wedgwood and singer Joan Sutherland.

The Order of Merit is one of the four orders of chivalry in the personal gift of the Sovereign. The lists of nominees do not, as with all other honours, have to go through Downing Street.

The Order was founded by Edward VII in 1902 not long after his mother, Victoria, had established the Royal Victorian Order as a way of recognising those who had given personal service to the monarch.

OMs are given to British nationals who have "rendered exceptionally meritorious service" either to the Crown or in advancing science, the arts or learning. It is a wide field. Among former OMs, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener rubs shoulders with Arthur Balfour (Prime Minister 1902- 06) and the composer Edward Elgar. The current list runs through music (Yehudi Menuhin and Sir Michael Tippet) to science and maths (Sir Michael Atiyah).

The Companion of Honour order of chivalry also includes artists and scientists in its ranks. Both Lucian Freud and Sir John Gielgud were CH before becoming OM. The CH was founded in 1917 as a way of expanding the supply of gongs during the First World War by Lloyd George, who saw the honours system as an extension of politics.

The ranks of the Companionship of Honour, which entitles the holder to the initals CH and a badge, but - as the official protocol sternly says - "no precedence", include political eminences such as Lords Hailsham, Whitelaw, Tebbit and Owen and the architect Sir Denys Lasdun. The number of CHs is restricted to 65.

Bluebloods and ex-prime ministers can look forward to the Garter and the Thistle, also in the personal gift of the Queen. The Garter is a genuine royal order, founded by Edward III, and as well as foreign royals includes old aristocrats in the shape of the Dukes of Norfolk and Devonshire. The lowly-born get the Garter through politics. The three surviving ex-prime ministers - Callaghan, Thatcher and Heath - are also bidden to the sumptuous garter ceremonies that take place at St George's Chapel, Windsor.

Excluding the foreign royals, admission to the Garter is limited to 24. As with the OM, death alone creates a vacancy.

Among the other main orders of chivalry, the Most Honourable Order of the Bath - created by George III - nowadays serves as a pay-off for senior civil servants and military officers.

Diplomats and Foreign Office staff have their own gong, the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George. Politicians can hope for a peerage or at least becoming a knight bachelor. Ordinary people can qualify for the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, also created by Lloyd George in 1917. This awards in the form of knighthoods (Knight Commander or Knight Grand Cross) and damehoods. Lesser mortals may become a Commander (CBE) or an Officer (OBE). The lowest rank is Member (MBE).

Whitehall considers nominations for the Order. Three years ago John Major declared that awards were going to be based on merit rather than political affiliation. The address to write to with nominations is: The Ceremonial Office, c/o 10 Downing Street, London SW1.

The Order of Merit

The Queen

The Duke of Edinburgh

Dame Veronica Wedgwood (historian)

Sir Isaiah Berlin (philosopher)

Sir George Edwards (aircraft designer)

Sir Alan Hodgkin (Nobel laureate in medicine)

Lord Todd (chemist)

Sir Owen Chadwick (ecclesiastical historian)

Sir Andrew Huxley (Nobel laureate in medicine)

Sir Michael Tippett (composer)

Frederick Sanger (Nobel laureate in chemistry)

Lord Menuhin (musician)

Sir Ernst Gombrich (philosopher of art)

Max Perutz (Nobel laureate in chemistry)

Dame Cicely Saunders (founder of hospice movement)

Lord Porter (Nobel laureate in chemistry)

Baroness Thatcher (politician)

Dame Joan Sutherland (singer)

Francis Crick (Nobel laureate in medicine)

Dame Ninette de Valois (founder, Royal Ballet)

Sir Michael Atiyah (mathematician)

Lucian Freud (painter)

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead (politician and author)

Sir Aaron Klug (Nobel laureate in chemistry)

Sir John Gielgud (actor)

Honorary members:

Mother Teresa

Nelson Mandela

Are these the most decorated people?

Lord Carrington, politician: hereditary peer; Knight of the Garter; Knight Grand Cross, the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George; Companion of Honour; Military Cross; Privy Counsellor (KG, GCMG, CH, MC, PC)

Field Marshal Lord Bramall, soldier: life peer; Knight of the Garter; Knight Grand Cross, Order of the Bath; Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire; Military Cross (KG, GCB, OBE, MC)

Sir Ewen Fergusson, diplomat: Knight Grand Cross, the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, and of the Royal Victorian Order; Grand Officier, Legion d'Honneur (GCMG, GCVO - no initials for the French decoration)

Lord Richardson, former governor of the Bank of England: life peer; Knight of the Garter; Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire; Territorial Decoration; Privy Counsellor (KG, MBE, TD, PC)