Prime ministers and honours during the reign of Elizabeth II

To mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, we look through The Gazette archives at the history of prime ministers and British honours during the reign of Elizabeth II.

Houses of Parliament

Prime ministers and honours from Elizabeth II

Since she was proclaimed sovereign throughout her realms on 6 February 1952 (Gazette issue 39458), Elizabeth II has seen 14 different prime ministers of the United Kingdom, starting with Winston Churchill who was the incumbent Prime Minister when she became Queen.

Though as Head of State she has always remained strictly neutral on all political matters, the Queen has bestowed numerous honours upon prime ministers from the various British orders of chivalry during her reign, all of which have been recorded in issues of The Gazette.

Order of the Garter

One of the most frequently used orders to bestow knighthoods on former prime ministers is the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Founded by Edward III of England in 1348, the Order of the Garter is the most senior order of knighthood in the British honours system, ranking only behind the Victoria Cross and the George Cross in order of precedence.

Knights and Ladies of the Garter are chosen personally by the Sovereign to honour those who have held public office and have contributed in a particular way to national life. Membership of the Order of the Garter is limited to just 24 persons at one time.

Before Gordon Brown, the Queen made all but two of her prime ministers Knights or Ladies of the Garter. Harold Macmillan declined the offer, while Sir Alec Douglas-Home was already a knight of the Order of the Thistle (Gazette issue 42815) before entering Downing Street in 1963. The first to accept the Order of the Garter was Winston Churchill on 28 April 1953, shortly after the Queen ascended the throne, while the latest to accept was Tony Blair on 1 January 2022.Winston Churchill Order of the Garter

See the prime ministers who accepted the Order of the Garter below:

Other honours

The Order of Merit is often referred to as the ‘most exclusive club in the world.’ Limited to only 24 living members at any one time, many of Britain’s most celebrated politicians have been admitted into the Order during the Queen’s reign, including Margaret Thatcher (Gazette issue 52360) and Harold Macmillan (Gazette issue 46872). Winston Churchill (Gazette issue 37407) and Clement Atlee (Gazette issue 39379) also received the Order of Merit but these were before the Queen ascended the throne.

The Order of the Companions of Honour is another order which is limited to a certain number of persons at any one time, with just 65 person making up the order. Three British prime ministers have worn the CH badge, however only John Major was honoured during the Queen’s reign. This happened in the 1999 New Year Honours (Gazette issue 55354) when he was recognised for “Services to Peace in Northern Ireland”. 

Prime Minister's Resignation Honours

The Prime Minister's Resignation Honours are honours granted at the behest of an outgoing UK Prime Minister following his/her resignation. In such a list, a Prime Minister may request the reigning monarch to grant peerages, knighthoods, damehoods and other awards in the British honours system to any number of people.

See all the Prime Minister’s Resignation Honours lists during Elizabeth II’s reign below:

Dissolution Honours

The Dissolution Honours are a list of people nominated to receive honours after the Dissolution of Parliament prior to a general election. The Parliament of the United Kingdom is dissolved 25 working days before polling day, as determined by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

Typically, a Dissolution Honours list allows an outgoing prime minister to suggest honours for politicians, including retiring MPs. Many are made life peers and the list may include knighthoods for those who have served in Parliament. Appointments to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom are also made.

See all the Dissolution Honours lists made during Elizabeth II’s reign below:

10 Downing Street

Prime ministers and peerages

life peer is an honour given to individuals which cannot be inherited by the recipient’s children (in contrast to a hereditary peer). In the UK, life peerages are created under the Life Peerages Act 1958 and entitle holders to sit in the House of Lords under the style and dignity of Baron (male) or Baroness (female).

While life peerages in the United Kingdom are created by the Sovereign by Letters Patent under the Great Seal, in practice they are only granted when proposed by the Prime Minister. By convention the Leader of the Opposition and other party leaders can also suggest a certain number of life peers. Traditionally peerages are awarded to individuals on retirement from important public offices, such as the Prime Minister, Speaker of the House of Commons and the Archbishop of Canterbury and York.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home actually renounced his hereditary title of the 14th Earl of Home on becoming Prime Minister (Gazette issue 43156). He would, however, later accept a different peerage upon retirement (Gazette issue 46441). Though Harold Macmillan declined a peerage on leaving office, he did accept a second offer of the customary hereditary earldom for retiring Prime Ministers, as Earl of Stockton and Viscount Macmillan of Ovenden (Gazette issue 49660). This was the last earldom to be offered outside the Royal Family.

Former prime ministers who took peerages after their retirement from office include:

The tradition of awarding peerages to former prime ministers on retirement is not, however, always implemented. Edward Heath and John Major chose not to become a peer, while Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have yet to receive a peerage.

See also

This month in history: The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

The history of Prime Minister's Resignation Honours

What are the Dissolution Honours?

Images (in order of appearance):

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Publication date: 23 May 2022

Any opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and the author alone, and does not necessarily represent that of The Gazette.