Originally appointed by Henry VIII to act as his henchmen during times of unrest in the provinces, they are the Lord Lieutenants. Until recently they were an uncontroversial group of men - there are no women among the 97 members - about which little is known. But now the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, is keen for them to play a greater role in the country's affairs.
As part of the Police Bill, the Government plans to allow home secretaries to appoint the chairmen of police authorities. To select the Home Office nominees, who will replace elected councillors or magistrates, Mr Howard proposes to recruit Lord Lieutenants to help draw up shortlists.
There will be six regional selection boards each composed of two Lord Lieutenants and a professional 'recruitment consultant'. Mr Howard argues that this will provide a wider range of candidates than at present.
So who are these new men of the people? Officially they are the county representatives of the Queen, who appoints them on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
The present English list of 46 Lord Lieutenants contains ten hereditary peers, seven baronets, two Field Marshals, an admiral and five colonels. About one in four cites shooting as a recreation in Who's Who. Thirty-two went to Eton and 20 took degrees at Oxford or Cambridge.
Only three have experienced state schools, and only one did a first degree at a provincial university. Of the eight Welsh members, three went to Eton and four Oxbridge.
The outgoing Lord Lieutenant - who retires at 75 - recommends his replacement. Lord Lieutenants admit there are very few Labour supporters among their ranks.
Originally they were responsible for raising the local militia to help maintain order within their county. This power was removed in 1871, but until 1921 they could still call on all able-bodied men to fight for the county.
Now their chief role is to 'uphold the dignity of the Crown'. This involves representing the Queen in her absence to present honours. During a visit by a member of the Royal Family, all the arrangements are made by the local Lord Lieutenants. They also hold honorary positions.
Their second function is as chairman of their Magistrates' Courts' Committee, whose work includes advising on the appointment of magistrates.
For their troubles they receive no pay, and can claim only limited expenses. They even have to foot the bill for their two military uniforms - pounds 2,000 each - and an additional pounds 700 for the ceremonial sword.
Samuel Whitbread, Her Majesty's Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, and a non-executive director of the brewers Whitbread, admits the representatives are drawn from a small elite.
He said: 'Many are ex-Army men and landowners and although they are not entirely representative of the population at large they do know a
lot of people.
'We are not allowed to publicly support any political party, but there are probably very few Labour supporters among the Lord Lieutenants.'
Mr Whitbread is one of several Lord Lieutenants who oppose any change to the structure of the police authorities.
The Association of Lord Lieutenants has not yet had time to discuss the Government proposals.Reuse content