By Holly Downes
Being awarded for an outstanding achievement should be the pinnacle of one’s career. It should be a time for celebration and joy. Yet, Britain’s honours system has corrupted this natural reaction. Due to its close association with the legacy of the British Empire, a passage of history plagued with the exploitation of ethnic minorities, celebrating success has become morally questionable.
A conflict arises as one must choose between their individual pride and respect for those exploited by the colonialist system. If the former is prioritised, although an award that recognises one’s achievements is accepted, this is done with a guilty conscience. Alternatively, regardless of a clear conscience, if the latter is chosen, an award that is rightly deserved is declined.
Thus, accepting an MBE award has become a complex moral dilemma between celebrating one’s hard work and success to battling with one’s moral conscience – a dilemma that should not be part of an award nomination.
With Britain’s award system initially being established in 1917 by King George V as a means of rewarding non-combatant roles during World War One, more than a century later, the system has been modified to honour contemporary contributions. From famous cooks, authors, and actors to world-leading scientists, it is an award system that recognises individual achievements and contributions to their communities on a national level.
Those recognised for their personal successes become a ‘Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ – an exclusive membership that not only grants access to the Royal Family’s investiture ceremony but allows one to change their titles to ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’.
Regardless, these entitlements are comparable to extravagant decorations on a stale cake. Yes, its exterior may be decorated with pretty pink flowers and ganache frosting. Yet, when a bite is taken, a grimace awaits — aesthetically pleasing on the exterior, grotesque on the interior.
The British honours system bears this same description. Whilst being nominated and awarded for an MBE is an honour, underlies the dark history of the British Empire in its very name – an empire built on racism, exploitation, and dehumanisation.
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, there have been increasing talks surrounding the decolonisation of the current British honours system. The Labour MP, Kate Green, contributed to these talks, claiming that it is “divisive, offensive and hurtful” and “reform is needed” to remove these negative associations.
Not only does it continue to offend those nominated for MBEs, but it is a system built upon racial inequality. As those of colour refrain from accepting an MBE award due to being reminded of the ‘thousand years of slavery and brutality’ the British Empire thrived upon, with Benjamin Zephaniah stating it “brought back memories of my foremothers being raped and forefathers brutalised”, it leaves the remaining white population with MBEs. Confirmed by a meagre 13% of those from a minority background accepting an MBE award in 2020, an awards system should not cause a racial divide – it should unite people to celebrate their achievements.
Yet, this necessary change to Britain’s honours system was blatantly dismissed by the Conservatives. The co-chair of the Conservative Party, Amanda Milling, rather endorsed the system by stating that it not only enables one’s hard work to be recognised but “reflects the country’s history and traditions”. Comparing the removal of the words ‘British Empire’ in MBE to removing the ‘Victoria Line or the Imperial War Museum’ in London, she maintained that “the story of our country” should not be removed as to do so would amount to “cultural and historical vandalism”. Hence, she suggests that by eliminating the word ‘British Empire’ that has permanently stained Britain’s history, we should rather celebrate our “country’s history”.
But is this a history we want to be associated with, let alone celebrate? A history clouded with years of exploitation, abuse, and dehumanisation of ethnic minorities for commercial gain? Safe to say, the majority would not. Although it is important to be aware of our country’s inhumane history, it is unnecessary to endorse it into an honours system. An award should not be haunted by the past exploitation of native countries – it should be a euphoric time of recognition and celebration. It should be an award that bears no conflicting choices but an award that is freely accepted.
Yes, the word ‘British Empire’ may just be symbolic, but a symbol should not cause more harm than good. It should not stop people from refusing the recognition they deserve and should certainly not instigate racial divides. Many petitions have been created to remove the word ‘British Empire’ in MBE. Yet, due to a lack of signatures, all these petitions have been rejected by Parliament.
Increased awareness is needed if any change is to happen, which can be spread by educating the public through social media campaigns. Until then, this social injustice will continue, and the British honours system will remain anachronistic and deeply problematic.
Image: Hulki Okan Tabak via Unsplash