New calls to replace ‘empire’ with ‘excellence’ in UK honours system

A new push to strip the word “empire” from the British honours system has been launched by dozens of community activists who have accepted gongs but object to them being named after imperialism that caused “harm and trauma”.

They include Victor Adebowale, the chair of the NHS Confederation who accepted a CBE in 2000; John Amaechi, a British-American former NBA player and Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu, a pioneering nurse born to Irish and Nigerian parents.

Last December the Cabinet Office said the names of medals such as the MBE, OBE and CBE would not change, but nearly 100 honours-holders have founded a campaign to replace the word empire with “excellence”.

The campaign is backed mostly by people from community and voluntary organisations, and says “the presence of colonial links within the honours system stands directly in the way of some people participating in it”.

The Order of the British Empire was founded by King George V nel 1917 as a way to recognise the service of non-combatants during the first world war.

The “excellence not empire” campaign said: “As modern Britain learns to confront the true nature of colonialism, and now that this debate has finally begun, we can no longer dismiss the subjugation, segregation and extermination of colonialised people as a neutral or even benevolent period in our history.”

Previous attempts to change the name of the system have failed. Nel 2004 Tony Blair resisted calls from MPs on the public accounts committee to end appointments to the Order of the British Empire and instead found a new Order of British Excellence.

The latest push comes amid heightened tensions over how Britain reckons with its colonial past. Some Oxford academics have refused to carry out extra duties for Oriel College after it decided to keep its statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes. Meanwhile a row over the display in a Bristol museum of the toppled statue of the slave trader Edward Colston has been rumbling on.

One of the campaign founders, Poppy Jaman, a Bangladesh-born mental health campaigner who received an OBE from the Queen three years ago, disse: “The word ‘empire’ does not resonate with my sense of integrity. Colonial policies during the British Raj of my birth country ensured communities turned on each other for almost 200 anni, its legacy still playing out in our homes today.”

Simon Blake, an LGBT campaigner honoured in 2011, disse: “Our colonial past is a shameful one. We have to face into that with honesty and integrity. That is why the honours system – if it exists – must break any connection to the empire. A simple switch from empire to excellence can and must happen so people can accept the honour with pride.”

Others have rejected honours because of their association with the empire and its history of slavery, including the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, the spoken-word artist George the Poet and Liverpool FC’s first black player, Howard Gayle.

After Zephaniah, the Birmingham-born son of parents from the Caribbean, turned down an OBE in 2003, he wrote in the Guardian that the word empire “reminds of thousands of years of brutality”.

This year Tony Sewell, the author of a controversial government-commissioned race report, said a new story about colonialism should be told that reflects “the good and the evil of empire that their legacy has given us”.

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