An alternative offering.
RECENTLY various “news” (and I use the term loosely) websites claimed that a senior member of the Honours Committee has stated that the word “Empire” is to be removed from the Order of the British Empire. According to the source the recent Black Lives Matter protests have “reignited” the debate about honours because of the Empire’s association with “slavery and brutality”. There’s no point, of course, in pointing out to those that take offence at the word “Empire” that the Slave Trade Act, which prohibited the trade of slaves in the British Empire, was passed in 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act, which did away with slavery completely across British held territories was passed in 1833, both well before the age that most people think of when they hear the words “British Empire”. To many the words are synonymous with the formation of the British Raj but that didn’t happen until 1858. There was of course a “British Empire” before that date but most seem to associate it most closely with Queen Victoria, probably because, unlike her predecessors, she actually used the title Empress, but she didn’t come to the throne until four years after slavery had been abolished.
Certainly at the height of its power, when it was the Empire on which the sun never set, the British Empire had no slaves within it, the penalties for slave owning were harsh, but that’s irrelevant. The British had used slaves, used them extensively in the North American Colonies in particular, and to pretend otherwise would be wrong, and perhaps to state that that era wasn’t really the “British Empire” as most would think of it, is just semantics. For whatever reason, right or wrong, some find the use of the word “Empire” in our current Honours System offensive; that is not in doubt and the issue was again highlighted earlier this year by the Labour MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy, who “demanded” that it be dropped. Certainly numerous people over the years have rejected an OBE or MBE because of the word Empire within it. It is, of course, absolutely their right to do so if they wish, but here’s the thing—an awful lot of other people would find it equally as offensive if the word Empire was dropped just to appease those who didn’t like it. That’s the trouble with “offence”, which seems to be taken at the drop of a hat these days, very rarely does everybody agree on exactly what is offensive (and why) and often when something is declared to be so others find that action itself “offensive”. You simply cannot win.
However, there is, perhaps, a way out of this without upsetting one side or the other—why not create a brand new Order? One that appeals to everybody, or at the very least annoys one side a little less than the other. After all, regardless of whether you find the word Empire offensive or not, there is no denying that it is a little anachronistic in the 21st century. We simply don’t have an Empire any longer, so still having an Order that represents it must seem a little odd to many. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating the abolishment of the Order of the British Empire at all, I’m a traditionalist and personally would be absolutely delighted to receive such an honour, anachronistic or not, but I do understand why others might not feel the same way. This being the case, why not offer them an alternative? An “Order of the British Commonwealth”, for example. Same criteria, similar insignia, same kudos, just a little more up to date and not quite such a problem for those who, for whatever reason, don’t want anything to do with an “Empire”. It wouldn’t really be that difficult to administer—those nominating the person for an honour would simply state which one they would prefer the recipient to receive; one assumes they would know the recipient well enough to be able to make that decision so it shouldn’t be too hard. It might even be possible for people to swap one for the other were the nominators to get it wrong—so if you get notice that you’re going to be appointed an OBE, but feel you can’t accept it because of the last letter, instead of refusing it you could simply say that you’d prefer an OBC. That’s the thing about our Honours System, it can change, indeed has done so regularly over the centuries and there’s nothing wrong with that—the introduction of a new medal or Order here, the swapping of one thing for another there, it’s all been done before and generally works quite well, so why not do it again? Far better that than to simply drop the word Empire altogether just to appease some whilst surely upsetting many more.