The professional organisation of which I am a member, the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (IEHF) an organisation with which I have had nary a qualm, has for some time been applying for a Royal Charter, or “chartered status.” On 29th May 2014 it was announced to members of the IEHF that “following a meeting of the Privy Council in Buckingham Palace on 27th May, Her Majesty The Queen has approved an Order granting a Charter to the Institute.” This announcement got me seriously thinking about the process of chartership about which nobody, apart from those who have been labouriously pursuing it, seems to know anything.
In what will almost certainly turn into a series of blog posts, I will attempt to demystify the process and outline some of the arguments I have with it. In this first post I will address the question of what a Royal Charter actually is. In future posts I will turn to issues of why is it considered important and whether it is a good use of an organisation’s time, funds and effort to obtain one.
A royal charter is basically a formal document on fancy paper with twiddly calligraphy and a wax seal. That sort of thing. It is issued by the monarch, through the Privy Council, and grants rights or powers to an individual or an organisation. In the UK there are approximately 750 organisations with Royal Charters. Most of these are cities. A Royal Charter is the mechanism by which a British town is raised to the status of city. Most recently Chelmsford in Essex was granted a Royal Charter in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Inverness, Brighton & Hove and Wolverhampton were given their charters to celebrate the Millennium, and Preston, Stirling, Newport, Lisburn and Newry to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2002.
The Bank of England, the BBC, theatres and opera houses, universities (at least, those founded before 1993), professional institutions and charities can (but not all do) derive their authority from a Royal Charter. Most British universities operate under Royal Charters, which gives them the authority to award degrees. However, the most recent generation of UK universities were granted the power to award degrees by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 instead of by Royal Charter, while some other universities operate under Acts of Parliament. All of which goes to show that a Royal Charter is by no means necessary for the vast majority of institutions to operate.
Almost without exception, the longstanding learned societies, such as the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the Royal Society of Literature, have Royal Charters. You can tell by the name.
Problem I: Power
So we encounter my first problem with chartership. I am a republican and as such I do not accept that it is the monarch’s right to bestow rights or powers on anybody. Power should originate with we, the people, not trickle down from an individual placed in a superior station by an accident of birth. The Royal Society (as far as I am concerned) derives its authority from being one the longest-surviving collection of the most brilliant and talented individuals this world has produced. The fact that their ranks are sullied by the presence of what are referred to as “Royal Fellows” – The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Kent, the Princess Royal, and The Duke of Cambridge – should be seen as an insult and nothing less.
Professional organisations should derive their authority from their membership. To make a facetious example: The Institute of Badger-Fanciers should be seen as the leading authority on all matters with regards the fancying of badgers as long as a large enough number of the most eminent badger-fanciers remain active members, not because it is The Royal Institute of Badger-Fanciers. If the leadership of the organisation takes what is considered a backwards step and begins advocating badger-baiting or train-spotting, then the membership should by all rights abandon, and condemn it.
Following a career change I am a relatively new and enthusiastic member of the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors. I am also, however, a republican and I take any potential association with the Crown, especially a professional one, very seriously indeed. Echoing the badger-fancying example just given, the IEHF should be (and is) seen as the leading authority on all matters with regards ergonomics and Human Factors. It is so solely because a large enough number of the most eminent ergonomists in the UK and abroad are active members.
We do not need a Royal Charter to give us any authority. We, the ergonomists, already possess it.
[To be continued...]