As we row about tearing down statues, as well as how we learn our history, it’s an interesting debate to also apply to the Queen’s Honours.
The Queen’s Honours is designed to be a wholly positive experience for all recipients. Yet we see many high-profile people rejecting their honour – some stating that the idea of being associated with the British Empire goes against everything they stand for. Notably, Benjamin Zephaniah rejected his OBE in 2003, stating that the word “Empire” made him angry and reminded him of slavery, rape and brutalisation.
Others who refused on similar grounds include Howard Gayle, the first black footballer to play for Liverpool FC. He declined an MBE stating that it would be “a betrayal” to Africans who suffered at the hands of the British Empire. Television presenter Lynn Faulds Wood also declined an honour, saying “We don’t have an empire in my opinion.”
To give a little background to the system, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is to reward British contributions to the arts and sciences, charitable and welfare organisations and public service beyond the role of public servants. It comprises several awards including knights, dames, OBEs, CBEs and BEMs.
Does this therefore make our most high-profile awards system unrepresentative and inaccessible to wider society?
Interestingly, in a report written by Sir Hayden Phillips and presented to parliament in 2004, he stated that “while the title may properly reflect our history, it is anachronistic in a damaging way that other titles are not.”
It recommended that a new order, of equal importance, be founded, namely the “Order of British Excellence”.
The government rejected this recommendation, stating that the Order of the British Empire is well understood and that the current members of the order would be “dismayed” if there were serious moves to stop new appointments.
The broad understanding of the British Empire is, however, the problem. People do have a good understanding of it and for some, it has wholly negative implications.
The argument of its “anachronism” is a fairly straight-forward one. The British Empire no longer exists – so why are we still acknowledging it in the Queen’s Honours, especially when we no longer see it referenced in any other sphere of British officialdom?
But going back to the statue arguments, the British Empire is a part of history. Nobody can deny that it happened. But perhaps we can consider more carefully where and how we recognise it.
Personally, I don’t think we will erase its history by removing it from the Honours system, because the impact of the British Empire – good and bad – is still felt all around the world. But given the need for the honours to be accessible to wider society, maybe the least we can do is provide people with the option to accept an award to the Order of British Excellence instead. Or, to progress the system further still, we could make the Order of the British Empire an opt-in for those who still wish to recognise it, and meanwhile everyone else receives the Order of British Excellence.
While government rejected the move, was that decision really representative? What if we put the question to wider society, or at the very least a more widely represented group? After all, that is who the awards are intended for.
If we are to be truly representative, we must democratise, demystify and diversify the system – and as a democratic country, there’s no real argument against asking wider society to make that choice.
When Theresa May set out her priorities for the Queen’s Honours in 2017, one of her key aims was to encourage “more racial diversity”. It raises the question as to how we can do that if the historical references could, at best, stand in the way and, at worst, cause pain, hurt and rejection.
So perhaps a middle ground is not to throw the Order of the British Empire out completely at this stage, but to give people the option. By looking at the numbers accepting the traditional versus the new awards, we’ll know for sure what it is that the British public really value about the Queen’s Honours. Then we can make a firm decision about whether to get rid of it once and for all.
Mike McKie is the founder of Bayleaf Honours, which provides advice and support to those wishing to prepare a nomination for the Queen’s Honours awards. To sign the petition to replace "Empire" with "Excellence", sign the petition
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