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What’s in a name?


  • Picture of Keith White FRSA
    Keith White FRSA
  • Arts and society

Keith White, CBE, FRSA argues that rather than doing away with the Order of the British Empire, a change of name is required to reflect what awards should be about – endeavour – rather than outdated notions of imperialism and colonialism.    

In 2009, I was made a CBE I felt greatly honoured, but like most people, I had thought previously that it was short for a commander of no assets in an empire that no longer existed. Like most people, I was wrong in that. In reality, I was appointed as an Ordinary Commander of an order of chivalry, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It is one of a number of chivalric orders that now form part of the UK public honours system.

Chivalric orders have their origins in medieval times. Those who wanted to become knights would have to meet standards of chivalry and become a member of an order. It is beyond the bounds of this short piece to examine the medieval standards of chivalry. Of note is that they included courage, honour, courtesy, justice and readiness to help others.

The medieval roots of the orders of chivalry are reflected in the name of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Although founded by George 1 in 1725, it draws its title from an elaborate medieval ceremony of appointing a knight, which involved bathing.

The UK public honours system

In common with many other countries, the UK has an honours system that recognises people who have made achievements in public life or committed themselves to serving and helping the country. Those who receive honours can be expected to have made life better for other people or be outstanding at what they do. In this context, there are three chivalric orders that each cover areas of endeavour. Other Orders include the Garter, of Merit, of the Thistle, of Companions of Honour and the Royal Victorian Order are outside the scope of this short piece. Membership of the Order of the Bath is awarded to recognise meritorious service of senior members of the armed forces and the civil service. In this order, there are no Commanders but Companions. The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George was founded by the Prince Regent in 1818 and is now awarded to those who render extraordinary service or hold high office in a foreign country or give loyal and important service to foreign and commonwealth affairs. The youngest of the three is the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).

When the Order of the British Empire was founded by George V in 1917, he sought to have a means to honour many across the then Empire who had served in non-combatant roles in the First World War. This was widened and now the Order has Civil and Military Divisions. Membership is broad across all fields of endeavour.

In 1917 and in subsequent decades, many people in the UK understood ‘the Empire’ to be a generally good thing. The impression was of enlightened self-interest motivating the ‘mother country’ to import raw materials and foods from the colonies and sell back manufactured goods. At the same time the perceived benefits of good governance and religion were being instilled in the colonies. In that atmosphere, to name an order after what was seen as such a powerful and beneficent institution must have seemed the most natural and proper thing to do. That was, however, more than a century ago.

We now clearly recognise that the fundamental concept underlying all empires is indefensible. Namely, that it was acceptable, even desirable, to take possession of another country or area and exploit its assets, both physical and human. We cannot deny our history or even say that nothing good was achieved under colonial rule. Yet, whatever the attitudes and mores of the past, it seems wrong now to honour an institution that is so far out of tune with contemporary knowledge and attitudes.

Time to move on

In modern times, the award of membership of the Order of the British Empire is unrelated to the old empire. It is awarded for effort, endeavour and achievement. When I was made a CBE, I was honoured that I (and through me, my colleagues) were recognised for decades of endeavour in supporting international development. The point is that the awards are not about empire any more than membership of the Order of the Bath is about bathing. They are about achievement through endeavour.

The association with empire is outdated, inaccurate and for many it is offensive. This can lead to meritorious citizens declining an award. In 2003, British-Jamaican poet Benjamin Zephaniah rejected an OBE because he said it reminded him of “thousands of years of brutality”. Obviously, that would stretch back long before the British empire and encompass other empires throughout history. So, his point was well made. In 2004, a House of Commons Select Committee recommended changing the title to the ‘Order of British Excellence’.

That would be an improvement but I would argue that membership of the Order should recognise outstanding Endeavour that benefits society.

Changing the title of the Order of the British Empire might seem purely symbolic. It would not address modern-day inequality of opportunity, racism or bigotry. But it could be achieved relatively easily. It might make it easier for people to understand its purpose and even aspire to membership. Even the post-nominal letters could stay the same.

Emphatically, I do not suggest that the Order should be closed or changed in any way other than changing its title and its motto. The Order is not restricted to a particular group of people or professions. The structure of the Order from British Empire Medal (BEM) to the Knight Grand Commander (GBE) fits it for honouring a wide range of outstanding contributions to our multi-cultural society. Equally, there should be no hint of belittling the achievements of those who have already been recognised by membership of the Order.

The time is ripe to change the title of the Order of the British Empire to The Most Excellent Order of British Endeavour. Similarly, the motto of the Order, “For God and the Empire” should change, perhaps to “For God and the People”.  It would be an accurate reflection of the Order’s purpose and in recognising the deep concerns about empire in today’s diverse society it would be a proper and chivalrous thing to do.

Throughout his executive career, Keith White worked in support of international development. Since retiring in 2011 he has worked as an independent advisor and mentor on strategic leadership and corporate governance.



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