Minor British Institutions: The Order of the British Empire

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The Independent Online

Despite many efforts to reform it, this archaic "order of chivalry" survives, though how seriously it is taken even by those proudly waving their medals outside Buck House is debatable.

Rebellious types from John Lennon to Benjamin Zephaniah have sent the gongs back or refused them, and you can see why some might struggle with the motto "For God and the Empire".

Founded in 1917, for many decades it was also a distinctly classist affair. The classless John Major ended that in 1993. Even so, it is still pretty hierarchical with its rankings of Knight/Dame Grand Cross, Knight/Dame Commander, Commander, Officer and Member.

They are all looked after by the magnificently named Purple Rod, or "the Gentleman Usher of the Purple Rod" to give him his full title. The Order of the British Empire isn't as grand as the ancient Order of the Garter or the much more special Order of Merit, but fewer and fewer of us care either way about such things.