Many countries recognise achievement or service among their citizens through a system of honours or awards. One exception I discovered is the Republic of Ireland that has no formal honours system whatsoever.
In the USA, for example, the highest civilian honours are the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In France, it’s the Légion d’honneur.
The UK has a long history of handing out honours and awards. Currently there are six orders of chivalry and four orders of merit. The oldest, The Most Noble Order of the Garter dates back to 1348, and is entirely at the discretion of the sovereign, as are The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (for Scotland), and the Royal Victorian Order.
For centuries, honours and awards were given almost exclusively to government officials and members of the armed forces. There was little recognition of members of the public.
That changed in 1917, when King George V wished to create an Order to honour many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combatant roles during the First World War.
The outcome was the founding of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which recognises contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the civil service.
Twice a year, at New Year and on the occasion of The Queen’s Official Birthday in early June, a list is published in the London Gazette (the UK’s official journal of record) with the names of those nominated for one of the ranks of this Order (or other honours).
In the 2012 New Year’s Honours I was surprised and honoured to be nominated as an Officer (OBE) of the Order for services to international food science. I spent much of my career in international agricultural research, helping to bring the best of science to address the worldwide problem of food insecurity, especially among the poorest nations.
I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace on the 29th February, receiving my award from HRH The Prince of Wales, who was standing in for HM The Queen as is often the case nowadays as she takes on fewer commitments.
So why am I feeling conflicted? Being an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (whose motto is For God and the Empire) does not sit comfortably right now. I’m surprised that in the wake of the recent brutal killings in the USA of African Americans and the surge of Black Lives Matter protests worldwide, and calls for the removal of symbols of Britain’s imperial and colonial past (many linked to slavery), that there have not been any—that I have seen—to scrap the Order of the British Empire.
It wouldn’t be the first time. During Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister in 2004 there were calls for the UK honours system to be reformed, and some honours scrapped. Titles in the honours system were “redolent of past preoccupations with rank and class, just as the ‘Empire’ is redolent of an imperial history,” said the [parliamentary] Public Administration Committee, chaired by the Labour MP Tony Wright.
Colonial titles, such as the Order of the British Empire, should be consigned to history. “This is anachronistic and insensitive, an inappropriate symbol for today’s Britain,” the committee said.
There was even a suggestion that the Order should be renamed as the Order of British Excellence, an idea revived by Labour MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy while campaigning to become Leader of the Labour Party earlier this year (before the latest protests). She proposed overhauling the honours system by removing reference to the British Empire in medals awarded to high-achieving individuals.
She cited British poet Benjamin Zephaniah who rejected an OBE in 2003. He wrote: “It reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of the thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.” Zephaniah is not the first person to reject recognition on this basis.
There are, of course, Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) recipients of the Order, but not as many as White recipients, because there are fewer BAME nominations apparently. Some are high profile individuals like athletes Jessica Ennis-Hill DBE and Kelly Holmes DBE, or slavery historian David Olusoga OBE, and others. Here are recent statistics up to 2019.
We cannot erase history. What happened, happened. Good or bad. Rather we must learn from the past, placing those events and individuals in context. And explain to current and future generations what that history means. Getting rid of statues, such as happened recently to the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, as well as repeated calls for Cecil Rhodes’ statue outside Oriel College in Oxford to be taken down, does remove however the daily reminders that so many find offensive. These statues are best placed now in museums where the roles of the individuals they depict can be explained and contextualised.
So this brings me back to the Order of the British Empire. Should its name be changed? I don’t believe that is the appropriate thing to do. Maybe create a new Order in its stead.
I hope I do not sound hypocritical. When I was nominated for and accepted the OBE, I never even made a connection with the Order’s imperial foundation. I appreciate that some will perhaps find this response unacceptable. Thoughts of empire never crossed my mind. I’m sure that for most recipients of one of the Order’s five ranks or the UK population at large, there is no longer (and hasn’t been for at least a couple of generations or more) any concept of empire. It was what it was when the Order was created in 1917. I nevertheless acknowledge that ‘imperial links’ do not sit well today.