Happy New Year’s Honours! In fact, unhappy, as this country’s preposterous awards system always riles me when the gongs are handed out like sweets. I heard Barbara Windsor, or Dame Barbara Windsor, cooing about hers on the news and stating, for the record, that she is a dyed-in-the-ermine royalist. Fair enough. I think Barbara Windsor should wear her damehood with pride; it’s clearly the highest honour the nation could bestow upon her for her acting and charity work. For the record, I do not think Barbara Windsor should have refused her New Year’s Honour. What I do think is that the whole prizegiving ceremony is based upon a rotten premise: the British Empire. Call it an MBE if you like, Goldie, or an OBE if you like, Damon Albarn, but its full title contains the words “of the British Empire.” Remember that? Of course you don’t. When dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah turned down his Order of the British Empire in 2003, he was very clear about why:
Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised … Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way, Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-Empire.
Now hear this: I think the refusal of a medal based upon the British Empire and all the brutality that historically goes with it is a matter of personal preference. For instance, I think it is heartwarming that ordinary Britons are recognised for their work in the community, and for charity, and in the care of others – everyday heroism, let’s call it, which I understand accounts for 76% of the awards handed out – and I would not expect any of the good people today honoured to do anything other than gracefully accept. Michael Pusey, 41, who receives an MBE as the voluntary founder and head coach of a BMX park in South London, for instance, who I saw on the news yesterday. He should be proud.
But why are we still giving out medals of the British Empire, please? They are, after all, for “chivalry”, according to the small print, and are divided up into “commanders” and “officers”, all of which smacks of colonialism and militarism. The Empire itself has been over since the Second World War. Britain hasn’t ruled the waves for some time. And when the Union flag was lowered in Hong Kong in 1997, that ought to have been the perfect time to rename and modernise the otherwise theoretically positive giving of credit where credit’s due. But there are fundamental, infrastructural and symbolic things wrong with the Honours system as it blindly lumbers on in breeches and riding boots as if Victoria is still on the throne and viceroys are still teaching the natives cricket in far-flung outposts of a global occupation built on profit and exploitation and slavery. We’re all Team GB now, aren’t we? Shouldn’t our prizes be similarly freshened up for the 21st century? If you are unable to scrub the years of blood off those medals, perhaps try a coloured ribbon, or a certificate, instead?
If the recognition being heaped upon Damon Albarn, and Idris Elba, and Chris Froome, and James Nesbitt, and Dr Michael Jacobs the consultant who treated three Britons with Ebola, was rebranded, and perhaps expunged of all the politics, it would be something we could all be proud of. Forget honorifics and titles and chivalry. Bollocks to Sir and Dame Grand Cross and KGB and all that forelock-tugging cobblers. Reward good service, beyond the call of your job description (which cancels Tory spin doctor Sir Lynton Crosby for a start), and by all means give the winners a free buffet at Buckingham Palace in their Sunday best. (I was twice invited to charity events at 10, Downing Street, and jumped at the chance to get inside the building, have a free drink and set aside any problems I had with Gordon Brown’s leadership of a busted Labour party. You can go to the Palace without becoming a royalist – Jeremy Corbyn did and escaped with his republican soul. But none of us in 2015/16 needs or wishes to be associated with the East India Company running opium out of China in the 18th century, surely?)
If the Empire part had been ditched when Britain had to give back India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Palestine in the 40s, we might not be looking at such a long and illustrious list of recipients who turned down their Honour throughout this nation’s most creative, innovative and progressive decades in the latter half of the 20th century and into this one: (in no particular order and only a partial roll-call) Francis Bacon, John Cleese, JB Priestley, Michael Foot, Alan Bennett, David Bowie, Danny Boyle, Rudyard Kipling, LS Lowry, Michael Faraday, Alistair Sim, Mark Rylance and AJP Taylor, who understood his history. Even Keith Hill, Blairite apologist and my local MP in Streatham when Britain invaded Iraq (and yes I did write him an angry letter), turned down a knighthood in 2010, saying, “My fundamental reason is that I have never had the least desire to have a title. I don’t want to be discourteous, but I find the whole idea a little embarrassing and too much for me.” Good on him.
Luckily, even if I devoted myself to do seven-days-a-week charity work for the rest of my life, I doubt I’ll be getting the letter on my doormat, so I will never get the chance to prove that I would turn down an Order of the British Empire, but I would. I remain uncomfortable about those I admire who have let their desire to give the family a nice day out eclipse their principles. For me, the whole thing is hypothetical. Allow me to enjoy that on this tainted day.
Ironically, the staunchly establishment Daily Mail, whose management uniquely pine for the simpler times of the East India Company and good, honest imperialism, used the headline, “TAINTED NEW YEAR HONOURS” today, using the example of Jacqueline Gold, CEO of the Ann Summers chain, as an unsuitable CBE, presumably because she reminds them that there is a thing called sex. Tainted the British Honours system may be, but not by the recognition of a strong, successful, independent woman who sells handcuffs and other bondage items for fun, rather than actual slavery.