The Post Debate: Outdated or Part of Our Heritage? This Week, a Committee of MPs Called for the Abolition of Knighthoods, Damehoods and the Renaming of the OBE to Order of British Excellence, as Opposed to Empire. Campbell Docherty Looks at the Proposed Reformation of the Honours System and Its Long History

The Birmingham Post (England), July 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Post Debate: Outdated or Part of Our Heritage? This Week, a Committee of MPs Called for the Abolition of Knighthoods, Damehoods and the Renaming of the OBE to Order of British Excellence, as Opposed to Empire. Campbell Docherty Looks at the Proposed Reformation of the Honours System and Its Long History


Byline: Campbell Docherty

'A rise, Sir Timmy of Mallett.' It can only be a matter of time before the Hawaiian-shirted, implausiblybespectacled, peerlessly annoying children's television presenter is given a knighthood.

For services to... to... well, some civil servant will think of something.

Sounds far-fetched? Well probably, but if Mr Mallett was as popular now as he was in the 1980s, would an OBE be out of the question?

How else do you explain David Beckham's induction into the Order of the British Empire? Twenty years ago, the thought of a current footballer getting an honour from the Queen would have been laughable.

Some members of the 1966 World Cup winning team were still waiting for theirs when Beckham received his, 30-odd years after lifting the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley.

But now football's cool, so putting letters after Becks' name is a smart political move.

Pop stars and footballers' honours is one of the phenomenons attacked by the recent report of the Commons Public Administration Committee, chaired by Cannock Chase MP Tony Wright.

However, the initial catalyst for this comprehensive revamp of the honours system was Handsworth poet Benjamin Zephaniah's stinging refusal of an OBE in the New Year.

'Stick it, Mr Blair and Mrs Queen, stop going on about empire,' he said, seeing the award as an allusion to slavery.

The report called for the OBE - Officer of the Order of the British Empire - to be replacedby the Officer of the Order of British Excellence.

The proposed reforms went further than many anticipated, calling for an end to honours which bestow titles, including 'sir' and 'dame'.

It would mean phasing out knighthoods and damehoods within five years.

Midland figures to recently become knights or dames include Sir Albert Bore, former leader of Birmingham City Council; Sir Michael Lyons, the authority's former chief executive; and Sir Simon Rattle, who led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to greatness.

But the committee said: 'Such titles are redolent of past preoccupations with rank and class.'

The Order of the British Empire had to go because it was 'redolent of an imperial history' and embodied values 'that are no longer shared by many of the country's population,' said the 11 MPs - among who there was just the one knighthood and a CBE.

Of course, the issue of reforming the honours system is going to find just as many opponents as supporters.

The findings of the MPs this week was thoroughly savaged by a number of commentators, who disliked the politically-correct, overtly political tone used in the report.

Midland MP Michael Fabricant (Con Lichfield) said: 'It's about time we stuffed political correctness - like the fatuous proposal to abolish the Order of the British Empire with the 'Order of British Excellence' - up where the sun don't shine.' Whatever the conclusion of the report, to some the honours system will remain a stabilising foundation of British society, to others it will be divisive, politically motivated and outdated.

AGAINST

I get angry when I hear word 'empire'

Birmingham poet Benjamin Zephaniah refused his OBE last November because, among other complaints, he said it gave an impression of white supremacy and alluded to slavery.

It caused quite a stir and prompted the Commons committee report published earlier this week.

The last refusal of an honour to cause such a scandal was probably John Lennon, who returned his MBE four years after receiving it in 1965.

In a note accompanying the gong, he wrote: 'Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts.

'With love. John Lennon of Bag.'

On Zephaniah's website, the Handsworth-born writer, wrote: 'I woke up on the morning of November 13 wondering how the government could be overthrown and what could replace it, and then I noticed a letter from the Prime Minister's office. …

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