There was an awful lot of insignia and medals (informally known as gongs) on display yesterday during the state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Not least among the royals, and the many military personnel of course.
And, unfortunately, rather too many ill-informed and bad-tempered Tweets about who and why was wearing what medals, and the like.
Medals and the insignia of the many orders of chivalry in this country have been conferred by the sovereign on the great and the good for centuries. There are ten current orders of chivalry, some made at the sole discretion of the sovereign, others on the advice of the government. Most have several classes, such as member, officer, commander and the like.
Among the Armed Forces there are various campaign and service medals that serving personnel receive as well as personal decorations for specific acts of bravery and the like, such as the Victoria Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross, to name just two.
The most senior order of chivalry is the Order of the Garter, established in 1384 by King Edward III, and only outranked in precedence by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. Two former Prime Ministers, Sir John Major and Sir Tony Blair are members of the order, among nineteen others.
The British Empire?
Many of those attending the state funeral at Westminster Abbey yesterday, or in the crowds lining the funeral route, proudly wore the insignia of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It’s the Order most familiar to everyone, and the most awarded.
The Order has Members (MBE), Officers (OBE – insignia on the right), Commanders (CBE), Knights Commander or Dames Commander (KBE or DBE), and Knights Grand Cross or Dames Grand Cross (GBE). Recipients are named (at least during Her Late Majesty’s reign) twice a year, in the New Years Honours or the Sovereign’s Birthday Honours. It is awarded for prominent national/international or regional achievements.
Until his death in 2021, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was Grand Master of the Order. That position is currently vacant, and presumably King Charles III automatically became Sovereign of the Order on his accession on the death of the Queen on 8 September 2022.
The Order was founded by King George V in 1917 to fill in gaps in the British honours system as, until then, most honors went to diplomats, civil servants, and officers in the Armed Forces. He wished to create an order to honour the many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combat roles during the First World War. Since 1918 it has two divisions: civil and military.
On 29 February 2012, I was made as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) during an investiture at Buckingham Palace in London, presided by the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. It was awarded for services to international food science.
In recent decades, membership of the Order has become controversial, and there are several widely-publicized rejections of the honor. When, in November 2011, I received a letter (below) that my name was being put forward for approval by Her Majesty, I was given the option to accept or decline.
A new start
Some have called it a ‘preposterous charade‘, others have declined the honor because of its connection with the idea of the now-extinct British Empire. Indeed, during Tony Blair’s premiership in 2004, a House of Commons Select Committee recommended changing the name to the Order of British Excellence! Now that seems preposterous to me, and the change never happened.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t carefully assess what is right and proper today. For far too many the legacy of the British Empire is painful. Dreadful acts were perpetrated on subservient populations in the British colonies. Should a prestigious honor still have that link? Perhaps it is now time to re-evaluate the honors system and how it is applied. And to whom.
I am proud to be a recipient of an OBE, and I would not wish to change its name. However, with the deaths of Her Majesty as Sovereign of the Order, as well as Prince Philip as Grand Master, I believe there is an excellent opportunity to ‘freeze’ the Order as such (it would become dormant) but replace it by a completely new order of chivalry with exactly the same purpose but without the disagreeable connections with empire.
A new way forward
Furthermore, while it might be unpopular to say so, the monarchy has, in my opinion, become a 21st century anachronism. I agree with this recently-posted tweet from Professor David Price of University College London:
It’s hard to see a place for monarchy when, in what is ostensibly one of the world’s richest nations, food banks are a lifeline for millions, and the cost-of-living crisis is the worst for decades. And the UK has lost its focus and place.
However, I do not favor an elected presidential system. Rather I would see us continuing as a parliamentary democracy (with MPs elected by proportional representation to ensure that every vote counts) with a non-executive president as head of state. Fulfilling many of the same duties that the King and members of the royal family undertake, but without all the kowtowing, pomp and ceremony – and expense. Just like in the Irish Republic or Germany, for instance.
In any case, I’ve written about the state of the nation and what needs to change in an earlier post. Her Majesty’s death should give us the space for reflection on how we want this nation to develop.