An elite members' club: The greatest Britons

An eclectic group was gathered at Buckingham Palace yesterday. What they shared was a rare decoration: the Order of Merit. By Andy McSmith
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Indy Politics

If being exceptional made people famous, the pavement outside Buckingham Palace would have been packed yesterday with fans wanting to catch sight of the 22 of the 24 members of one of the world's most exclusive and prestigious clubs.

But the two dozen people who took lunch with the Queen are not all rich, powerful or even famous. All they have in common is that they possess modest looking badges that will have to be given back when they die, and they are allowed to put the initials OM after their names.

They are the 24 holders of a little-known decoration called the Order of Merit. Yesterday's lunch was to welcome the three most recent recipients. If two of the elderly members had been able to make it, it would have been only the seventh time in 105 years that every holder of the OM had been in one place.

What makes the Order of Merit exceptional is that neither politicians, nor civil servants, nor the military top brass have any say in how it is awarded. So all those retired generals, old Sir Humphreys, or brash pop stars and sporting heroes whose popularity could be worth votes have to be content with something less exclusive.

It is one of only four decorations given by the Queen, free from advice from the Prime Minister or anyone else in Whitehall, and it is the only medal reserved specifically for artists, scientists and intellectuals.

That is not quite how the Order's founder, Edward VII, saw it. He envisaged a British version of Germany's Blue Max, half of whose holders were to be military heroes, and all would be male. The original 12 members were made up half of scientists such as Joseph Lister, the surgeon who pioneered the use of antiseptics, while the other half were soldiers such as Lord Kitchener, just back from Africa, where he had defeated the Sudanese and then the Boers.

After five years, the King very reluctantly bowed to popular opinion and awarded the OM to the aged Florence Nightingale, but, once she had died in 1910, the Order went back to being men only, and stayed that way for 55 years. Finally, in 1965, it opened it doors to a second woman, Dorothy Hodgkin, one year after she had won the Nobel prize for chemistry. There has not been an ex-soldier in the order since Earl Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA in 1979 but there are three surviving women members – Margaret Thatcher, the former Speaker Betty Boothroyd, and the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland.

While ideas about who qualified have shifted over 105 years, one constant is that each of the four monarchs who has controlled entry to the Order has been very choosy about picking people who are truly distinguished, so the list of past and current members reads like a roll call of the greatest Britons of the century.

George V bestowed the OM on Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Sir James Barrie, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Ernest Rutherford, among others.

George VI's nominees included two prime ministers, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, a poet, T S Eliot, and two socialists, Sidney Webb and Bertrand Russell.

Almost half of the 174 people who have received the OM were selected by the Queen, starting with Wilder Graves Penfield, a brain surgeon. She has also awarded the status of honorary holder of the OM to some non-Britons, such as Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.

A churl may question the achievements of two of her 81 choices – her husband, Prince Philip, and her heir, Prince Charles – but the remainder of the list is replete with glittering names. Among those who have since died, there is Henry Moore, Isaiah Berlin, Laurence Olivier and Ted Hughes. Names on yesterday's guest list included Lucian Freud, Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir David Attenborough.

One of the newcomers welcomed yesterday was Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who may not be a household name but every household has felt the impact of his achievements. He is the man who invented the World Wide Web. Other newcombers were Martin Rees, an astrophysicist and president of the Royal Society, and Robin Eames, former primate of the Church of Ireland.

There is something about this order that disturbs those of a democratic turn of mind. If elected politicians had control over it, you can be sure that it would soon be opened to sporting heroes or rock stars, whose popularity could be worth a vote or two.

If the Civil Service was involved, it would be filled with retired Sir Humphreys. Instead, it is run by an archaic office at St James's Palace, called the central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, answerable only to the monarch. It is that outdated, semi-feudal line of command that makes the OM a decoration to die for.