2007 - 2021

Imperialist Leather: British Empire Honours as Fetish Objects

Ster_Orde_van_het_Britse_RijkD.J. MacLennan argues that, as the main, independence-supporting political party, the SNP urgently needs a policy on its representatives holding British honours. 

I didn’t get much work done last week. My Facebook post (to a Yes-sympathetic group) on the incongruity of Yessers accepting New Year honours exploded in my face. But before rotting away to petty name-calling, the thread had blossomed, spanning subjects including intentionality, rationalist ethics, Nietzsche, ethology, Benjamin Zephaniah, Parfitian objectivism, scatology and James Corden.

The original post was a general-terms objection highlighting the ‘lack of principle’, which I stated was causing me ‘cognitive dissonance’. However, as the thread unfolded, I felt it would be more honest to ‘call out’ one particular recent recipient of an honour to respond to my post. Gamely, he engaged. Apparently, the honour was ‘for his work’ (evidently, superior to others’ work, or all hard-working people would be appointed OBEs). His other justifications were no more coherent; he went through most of my logical fallacy checklist within a few paragraphs. Then came the inevitable charges by others that I had personally attacked him. It’s one thing to object to the system, it’s another altogether to question the logic and principles of a named individual.

But what if the individuals are the fetid, anachronistic system? Not because they’re necessarily bad or unprincipled, but because they choose to participate and thus perpetuate it. Lacking the key principle that prevents its propagation will perpetuate it by default. It’s a precision-engineered rancorous mess; the us/them divisions created by imperial patronage are the very object of the game. Objections to the system become ad hominem by default. And defence of named recipients becomes defence of the system by default, because of course we can name – and perhaps know personally – decent people who have received honours. ‘I hate the Honours system, but my mate’s got an OBE, he’s worked hard for it and he’s OK’ is support, not qualified condemnation.

Honours are shiny. Even those recipients who don’t start out with the Gollum-ish ‘I wants it’ tendency become enchanted by them over time. They’re addictive, scintillating rings of visibility granting their wearers charmed lives of access to people, positions and resources denied the majority. In certain quarters, they transmute into sleek and sexy garments with the line, whiff and new-squeak of tight-fitting leather trousers. It’s understandable that people seek such access and Hello! magazine glamour, or find it hard to turn down when it arrives in the mail, but that doesn’t make it right. In fact, it’s hideous, ill-fitting and more than a little shrivelling.

Many see it as a monarchists vs. republicans issue, but that is simplistic. Of course there is room in the debate for independence-supporters who wish to keep a symbolic monarchy. What strains credulity, however, is the idea of British state supporters who want Scottish independence. And how else should we see acceptance of honours from the British-Empire-state but as at least tacit support for it? It’s a bizarre line of (un)reasoning: ‘I’ve been appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, but that doesn’t mean I actually support it. It’s just an award, like a BAFTA or something.’

So, just an award. Just a symbol. But symbolic of what, precisely? Another argument I heard was that people don’t take the Empire seriously any more – it has become a bit of a joke. Should we also laugh off the crimes of that empire? The paranoia and brutality of the injured beast as it lost its grip on ‘Possession’ after ‘Possession’ is well documented but seldom discussed. Professor Caroline Elkins won a Pulitzer prize for her book Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya in which she lays bare the starvation, torture, rape and murder of detainees at purpose-built camps and in villages across Kenya. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans, and some even estimate the entire population, were detained by the British. The Empire’s pretext for detention was its strenuous efforts to quell the Mau Mau uprising. Employing the well-honed barbarity of their troops, and their proven divide and rule strategy, the British defeated the uprising.

But that’s ancient history, right? Well, only if you consider 1960 ancient history. The further back you go, the grimmer it gets. The Empire’s mastery of the technology of subjugation – concentration camps proved a useful tool in South Africa during the Second Boer War – obliterated insurgency after insurgency across the ‘possessed’ world (coloured red).

How can those of us who believe in an independent Scotland take up appointments as ‘Members’, ‘Officers’, ‘Knights’ of an aberration like this – a gloating, unrepentant, undead empire that would see our hopes dashed and our cause dispersed on the winds of history? (But hows can we not, Precioussss, hows can we not?)

As the main, independence-supporting political party, the SNP urgently needs a policy on its representatives holding British honours. Champagne (the good stuff) swilling, moth-eaten hereditary peers are the relatively easy targets within the system; the test of courage will be to look within Scottish politics and recognise the poor judgement, conflicts of interest and political non-sequiturs that MBEs, OBEs and KBEs represent here. This self-examination might well sting a bit, but those, like Jean Urquhart (independent MSP), who have relinquished their honours have shown that it can be done with admirable candour and with the dignified wisdom to admit that in accepting them they just got it wrong.

In terms of the philosophy of Karl Marx, British Empire honours can be seen as ‘social objects’ and also as ‘fetish objects’: they have no inherent power/value and we may even claim that it is harmless to possess them because of this; nevertheless, our society invests them with power and value, so they become potent, meaningful and dangerous. Finding ourselves in a society that sets great store in status symbols and little in egalitarianism, we lust after them or become addicted to them. Not unrelatedly, Freud focussed on the sexual potency of fetish objects: as usual with Freud, something to do with mothers, death, and penis envy.

For me, the very concept of empire is flawed, repellent and immoral. The British state shouldn’t be revelling in its imperial past (?) by handing out commemorative baubles; it should be begging forgiveness for its crimes.

If you are offered a British Empire ‘honour’, refuse it. If you already have one, let it go. And if you can’t give it up, then at very, very least have the human decency to put the ugly thing away and stop rubbing it.

Comments (43)

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  1. bringiton says:

    I have no problem with those who deserve it being recognised and applauded by the state for their efforts on behalf of others.
    However,the British state has become corrupt and far too many people are recognised for the wrong reasons,bringing the whole process into disrepute.
    The SNP must dissociate itself from this system of patronage along with the rejection of cash for honours and it seems to me that a Scottish based system,out with the control of politicians and political parties would be most appropriate.

    1. gonzalo1 says:

      The British state most certainly is corrupt. Pity Lord Whatshisname snuffed it just as the wolves were beginning to circle. No doubt we;ll hear more of that in the weeks and months ahead.

  2. Great post, very interesting!

  3. IAB says:

    I have known 2 recipients of ‘honours’.

    The first was a career manager who maneuvered his promotions through connections and back handedness. He was a Glaswegian who was a Tory and joined all the right clubs. When he received his ‘reward’, he was taken aback to be asked the reasons for the award by many of the staff. I think it was decided that the award meant Old Bald Eagle.

    The second was a nice wee Scottish lady who started Scouts groups abroad. She managed some nice managerial posts thereafter.

    Not impressed with either as I knew many more who really deserved recognition.

  4. Of course, since the British Empire ceased to exist in 1947, when India was let go, although the “Empire Games” took a further decade to become: “The Empire and Commonwealth Games”, then, four years later became “The Commonwealth Games”, to still appoint Members, Officers, Commanders and Knights of an Empire which is no more, is, pretty stupid.

    Then, there is the almost lottery of who gets what. The guy I sat beside at school is an OBE. When he got it I wrote to him asking for the name of the Other Buggers, whose Efforts had got him his gong. My mate was a career RAF officer, who happened to get the right stations to command. He himself admits – he didn’t do anything special, but, the established pattern was, if you got command of certain stations, you got the gong.

    Similarly, kow-tow enough, keep your nose clean and any civil servant can reach the level of “Call Me God”, “Kindly Call Me God” or even God Calls Me God” if he gets to the right grade of his Order of St Michael and St George – CMG, KCMG or GCMG.

    It is worse at the populist level of OBEs etc. It grates with me that Geoff Hurst, who got lucky with two goals in one game, then had a third goal incorrectly credited to him, as a result is: Sir Geoff Hurst, while two vastly-superior players: Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish, are both still mister.

    Maybe the Scottish Government should institute a separate Scottish honours system, based perhaps on the Order of the Thistle. Along the way they could democraticise this elitist order, and properly recognise deserving Scots.

    1. john doe says:

      > Maybe the Scottish Government should institute a separate Scottish honours system, based perhaps on the Order of the Thistle. Along the way they could democraticise this elitist order, and properly recognise deserving Scots.

      “I do not think it is the role of government to decide who is honorable” (Piketty)

      1. I agree wholly with this. Award them for real service to the people of Scotland rather than the state. Why anyone would crave an award in this day and age that was granted to Jimmy Saville is frankly beyond me.

  5. As far as I know the SNP does not nominate anyone for an honour, therefore is not participating in or endorsing the British honours system. Many SNP members appear to support this position. However there are others who feel receipt of an award reflects well on the business/organisation/university/charity/whatever that they work for. I don’t see why the SNP should dictate to members on whether or not honours should be accepted. That decision is surely down to the members concerned and their consciences and beliefs. The SNP can set an example, it is up to individual members as to whether they follow it.

    1. gonzalo1 says:

      Many in the SNP are conservative in character. In my own branch in Dumbarton there are a number of old hands who would gladly accept a CBE/OBE as it would massage their egos and justify their position in whatever conformist organisation they were a member of.

  6. Simon Chadwick says:

    I would think any organisation can offer someone a medal and an honorary position in that organisation. It’s up to you if you accept. The UK state is nothing special in that regard.

  7. maxi kerr says:

    This “disgusting come and join our better than them gang” superior award is a disgrace to the millions of normal people in our land.They are hand picked only for their helpfulness in the governments plans. Soon the new people control..Common purpose… will take over most of the positioning of their new graduates in supervisory and above positions in this country. These are the planted dangers to our free society too look out for.

  8. Frederick Robinson says:

    I didn’t read the article, but the title’s main phrase ‘Imperialist Leather’ reminds me more of the name of a brand of soap than Buckingham Palace-dispensed gongs.

    1. I think the concept you are having some difficulty with, is irony.

  9. Darien says:

    As a certain A. Garnett Esq would say: “Its all yer class system, innit”.

    Talking of Empire, only a colony would be granted a devolved parliament.

  10. Jim_morrisson says:

    I probably agree with the sentiment of the article. However, OBEs and honours actually do have a monetary worth, and it is not insignificant. Such an honour will likely increase your income and/or your provide completely new revenue streams.

  11. Lawrie says:

    the book “late victorian holocausts, el nino famines and the making of the third world” by mike davis is very interesting on the effects of empire

  12. Big Jock says:

    I can sum up the crassness and corruptness of the Great British Honours system in three words:” Sir Jimmy Saville”.

    1. Well said big jock the honours list is like a second sex offenders register
      Read link below and u can see how sinister our elite really are


      1. I like that line sir. Have I permission to steal it? 🙂

      2. Hi max plz to meet u am mick of course u can a read it else were and have used it since it’s the most fitting comparison sad but true the honours is a who’s who of white washes and cover ups out dated jst like the House of Lords !

    2. jivetoaster says:

      The most recent honours list is actually the third to include the name Jimmy Savile.

      First time was the 1972 New Year’s Honours, where he became an OBE.

      Second time was the 1990 Queen’s Birthday Honours, where he became a Knight Bachelor.

      Third time, in the 2014 New Year’s Honours, there was this line:
      “Miss Kathryn Felice Lampard. Independent Overseer Department of Health and NHS Investigation into Jimmy Savile. For services to the National Health Service and to the community.”

      Maybe names like Leon Brittan and Tony Blair will turn up in a future Honours List, eh? 😉

  13. Clootie says:

    The awards are to recognise conformity to the system, to encourage greater conformity to the system or to compromise an individual who has critiqued the system.

    In order to give the “awards” some societal standing (credibility) they throw in a small percentage of cases were people have actually given something positive to society.

    So many civil servants, pop stars and footballers – so few food bank organisers, charity workers and those in social support groups.

    So much for those being rewarded for what they are paid to do in the first place. So little for those unpaid for doing what is an extra task that helps others and reduces the burden on the state.

  14. Big Jock says:

    You sometimes get awarded for just making loads of money! Sir Richard Branson! Its a big pile of utter meaningless crap and I will never call anyone sir or mam!

  15. Fay Kennedy. says:

    In a decent society there’s no need for them. Get rid of them. Class, conformity,convention.

  16. Steve Asaneilean says:

    I would refuse – but never likely to be tetsed on that one! 🙂

  17. Steve Asaneilean says:

    Doh! Tested!!

  18. Bernicia says:

    This to me is self evident. If you see nothing good in the British state and seek to leave then why tacitly support it by engaging with the patronage system? (or in fact any other aspect.) Some of the Yes celebs didn’t quite seem to grasp this and still took bursiaries/ advantage of UK institutions while at the same time campaigning to prevent other Scots from the same future privilige.The hypocrisy was extraordinary. Sir Sean Connery of course but also, Brian Cox with the UK arts council, all those writers on the British Council website/ literary events promoting their work. That gobby bloke who was everywhere with the indyref play, Blissett (reminds me of Robbie Willaims in his chubby years, but even more annoying) apparently went to Nigeria to some arts festival with the British Council mid way through the campaign, then tried to hide it when he got back? Aparently the Brit Council weren’t chuffed as he was supposed to return the favour and promote the fest and Nigerian writers back in the UK. Instead he deleted it all from his facebook and Twitter account. There were plenty others also.


    1. JBS says:

      Blissett was it in that dawn to be alive,
      While to be a unionist was sheer fear and hellishness…

      1. gonzalo1 says:

        Was Blissett’s first name not Luther, who used to play for Watford FC?

      2. JBS says:

        Good one. Also, weirdly enough, this:


        I did not know that!

  19. Bernicia says:


    1. JBS says:

      ‘mmmm.’ Must be the slight humming noise made by the unionist servomotors.

      Listen, people, and understand. That unionist is out there. He can’t be bargained with. He can’t be reasoned with. He doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, though he does feel fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, unless you agree to vote Labour.

    2. JBS says:

      Sorry, got that last part slightly wrong. I meant, of course, to write:

      …unless you agree to vote for the intellectually and morally bankrupt bunch of brassneckers known as the UK Parliamentary Labour Party.

      Mea culpa…

      1. Anton says:

        Sorry, you’ve lost me. Do you have any specific points to make in response to Bernicia’s remarks? Or do you think that abusing unionists and the Labour Party amount to intelligent comment?

  20. Big jock says:

    Well as Wallace said. People follow men not titles!

    1. Bernicia says:

      No he didn’t; A homophobic, Anti-semtic, misogynist did. He (the real feudal land owning/ people owning one) was ‘Sir’ William Wallace. The clue is in the title.

  21. manandboy says:

    David Murray was knighted for services to Scottish Business. But it was the Scottish Taxpayer who footed the bill for his services to the Unionist cause, while the great man’s family members extracted the really valuable stuff from his failed, indebted empire.

    In one man’s life, most of what passes for The Scottish Establishment is laid out.

    The Honours system ? Nae bother.

  22. Abulhaq says:

    Hereditary feudal, aristocratic titles should be abolished, including the monarchy.

  23. oldbattle says:

    Many of the post-colonial commonwealth have created their own honours as an act of deliberate autonomy making the break clear. Indeed I have suggested elsewhere that after Independence we should create (like so many of our indie cousins in the Commonwealth) National Heroes folks over the centuries who build the road to sovereignty.

  24. Brian says:

    Among many laughable justifications was the guy who got his for “services to rowing”.

  25. Gordie says:

    Gies me the boak the honours system. The sleekit state trying to ingratiate itself with the punters, amongst other things. I would lose some measure of respect for any Scottish person who revealed they had one and therefore did not turn it down when offered it. Then I would feel a wee bit ashamed of myself for projecting my shit on someone else. Some people will see no harm in accepting these honours and some other folk will see no contradiction in accepting an MBE and wanting Scottish independence or voting YES in a referendum. I’m sure there will have been holders of OBE’s who have come out to deliver SNP leaflets, go to meetings and generally do their bit to help Scotland reach full nation status. Should the SNP be encouraged to create rules to block them from doing that on the basis that they have accepted an OBE? Sorry I’m not wearing that one. Have a bit of sympathy for people Maclennan. Not every person who has received an award is a c**t. A 76yr old woman from Loch Tay side for example, kind, lives alone, no bairns, has been a life long supporter of Scottish nationhood. Wants to see it, live in it Has received one of these awards and is happy to have something to show for her 60 years work for the P.O. There is a contradiction there for her, She is not blinkered, poorly informed or stupid but on balance she is happy to have it. So what? Let’s try and keep the rules to a minimum, we are human beings and can hold what seem to others to be contradictory points of view.

    Sitting MP’s MSP’s are a different matter for me I would have zero sympathy for an MP/MSP accepting Honours.

    Does anyone know what the SNP’s official policy is on the Monarchy?

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