Reflecting on past Empire no way to honour modern heroes
WE SHOULD all celebrate those entrepreneurs, philanthropists, charity workers, and carers who have received royal honours.
In Stoke-on-Trent, it is quite right that the business brilliance of Denise Coates CBE, the community activism of Hifsa Iqbal CBE, and the medical care of Ruth Chambers OBE have been recognised at the highest level.
But should the title of Commander or Order of the British Empire contain the word 'Empire', when the British Empire is now long gone?
That was the issue raised last week by three Lord Lieutenants. The Rt Hon George Reid, Lord Lieutenant of Clackmannshire, said there was a general "unease" about the use of the word 'empire' while the Lord Lieutenant of Cheshire, David Briggs, described it as 'inappropriate in 2012.'
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Meanwhile Sir James Cropper KCVO, Lord Lieutenant of Cumbria, called for a 'title more meaningful for the present times'.
What sparked the Lord Lieutenants' intervention was Prime Minister David Cameron's proposals to reinstate the British Empire Medal as a reward for those who make an outstanding contribution to civic life through community work and volunteering.
The original BEM was established in 1917 to recognise individuals not of sufficient 'rank' to be awarded an MBE, OBE or CBE.
This distinction was reinforced by the fact that, unlike the higher rank honours, the BEM was not personally awarded at Buckingham Palace, but by the Lord Lieutenants themselves.
It was last used in 1992 before John Major, in a drive to create a 'classless society' concluded that the distinction entrenched class divisions and suspended the honour, promising to recommend more MBEs instead.
Our current Prime Minister, with his Downton Abbey approach to British society, wants to bring it back. And, inevitably, the proposal has revived our national obsessions of class and identity.
On one point, at least, the Prime Minister is right. The number of people currently being honoured for local community work is far too low. In Bentilee, residents are rightly proud of their own 'Citizen of the Year' award (currently held by top local fundraiser Pat Roberts), but some broader national recognition would not go amiss.
Then there is the issue of 'Empire.' And on this, I tend to side with the Lord Lieutenants.
Empire is fundamental to the history and identity of modern Britain. At its peak, the British Empire involved ruling over a third of the world's population – and the story of contemporary India, America, Australia and swathes of Africa are bound up with this imperial history.
And, of course, the impact of Empire floated back onto these shores. From chicken tikka massala to bungalows to Pale Ale to Imperial Leather to Wembley Stadium to Liverpool Docks, the legacy of Empire remains all around us. As do those communities brought to this country by colonialism, from the West Indians to the Pakistanis to the Gurkhas.
In Stoke-on-Trent, this history is particularly powerful. Wherever you travel around the world – from the University Clocktower, in Mumbai, to the plantation houses of Jamaica to the Capitol Building in Washington – the great Potteries' brands can be found.
The riches of Stoke-on-Trent were built on exporting Spode, Minton, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, and Johnsons to the edges of Empire. We should also not forget that the greatest bard of Empire, Rudyard Kipling, was a product of North Staffordshire thanks to his father Lockwood Kipling's post at the Burslem School of Art.
In turn, the Empire came back to Stoke in the post-war years with the arrival of a large Pakistani community to work on the pot-banks.
However, that is now history. Hong Kong was handed back in 1997 and, aside from a few overseas territories, we are no longer an Empire. So that should surely be reflected in our honours system. We should keep the titles of OBE, MBE, and CBE, as they are well recognised and appreciated, but we should change 'Empire' for 'Excellence' to have Commanders, Officers and Members of the British Order of Excellence.
It might not be so historically redolent, but it would be more honest.
There is no reason why the loss of empire should diminish the status of the honour. The most prestigious honour – the Order of Merit – makes no mention of empire at all. And plenty of countries have post-imperial civilian honours that carry a tremendous amount of significance, such as the 'Order of Canada' or the Legion d'honneur in France.
It is always pleasant to bask in old glories, but it is no way to honour our modern heroes or build a country focused on the global future rather than the colonial past.