David Anderson on the gongs and patronage that remain as the last traces of Empire.
The ‘Honours’ list came round again with a malignant monotony. Oh aye, said I, and my weary eyebrow raised itself asymptomatically. I mean, my condition is very clear, and can only be remedied by the abolition of the monarchy, decommissioning the House of Lords, removing all aristocratic privileges, and a complete revamp of the honours system. As things stand, a tiny minority of people benefit at the expense of most others in society and it’s just not right. Though, having written for Bella about the honours system in the past, I wasn’t expecting to be sitting here on a cold, rainy day, tapping away my ruminations of a new angle.
Yet, behold, what is that I see before me? It isn’t (just) the usual tired list of those wannabe gang members, those rewarded for complicity, and smattering of unknown-to-me fowks who do good in their life. Neither was it someone like Billy, Alex, Mick or Rod of whom I had written about last time. No, here was a real live workaday person I know, and would venture even love, in that fellow human-being kinda way. Someone I talk with every now and again, of whose opinion I value a lot, advice I seek, and whom I truly respect. But wait, what. Here they were on the tele and in the papers, accepting a bloomin British Empire Medal!
So, when the credits rolled and everyone was sending congratulations on social media, I had to question myself. Did I feel happy for him? Yes. I have long thought that they were deserving of recognition and – having seen others win awards for similar work – wondered why they hadn’t been recognised before now (I have even considered nominating them for something myself at some point). Did I wish to congratulate him? No. I won’t go against my beliefs even if it means that it may cause an uncomfortable discussion. Indeed, it is better to have such conversations if we are to grow individually and as a society. We’ll either chat about it at some point in the future or not. To be honest, it is a bigger issue than one of any agreement or not between us two. Also, they may just not give one about my solitary opinion anyway.
Why was I surprised? Because this person battles often for marginalised groups in society. LGBTQ+, those experiencing or have experienced so-called ‘state care’, and more. So, it was surprising to me that they would accept something called the British Empire Medal. If we consider that this so-called ‘empire’ transported care experienced children all over the world for many to be abused and exploited and was responsible for much ill-treatment to this community. The ‘empire’ introduced homophobic law across the globe. Indeed, the first such laws on the continent of Africa, with conviction leading to up to 14 years in prison. So much so, that there are still around 40 countries around the world who discriminate and criminalize individuals based on their sexual preferences, many of them using the same laws introduced during that time. This ‘empire’ has left a legacy that continues to impact on the very real lives of people both in the British Isles and the world beyond. You would (or at least I do) think that someone interested in supporting a lifetime of love, respect and equality for these groups would think twice about accepting such a medal. But then again, I was also surprised by how many people I know voted to stay in the UK in 2014, so what do I know. Since then we’ve had Brexit and Trump so it may be in fact perfectly normal and it is me that is mistaken.
Now, you could say, but that’s history, it’s in the past. The Britain of today is not such a place (though that really depends on how you consider the impact of History on the present). However, I posit that the word ‘empire’ carries that era with it, and (for me anyway) it sticks in the throat that such a word, with all its connotations, would still be in use today. Especially, when celebrating people who fight against the very essence of what Empire is all about. Because, Empire is about subjugation, control, exploitation, class, hierarchy, racism and so much more. I don’t for a second buy the ‘bringing progress to where it was needed’ trope. It stinks to high heaven of appeasement of wrongdoing.
There is no way that such a word should accompany the celebration of a citizen’s achievements in a modern-day democracy. It only serves to entrench that system and cement this elite as being some sort of solid foundation of so-called British society. Which, in turn, gives them licence to continue. Just consider the recent Guardian articles revealing the influence the Crown has on the laws of the UK, the control that they still have over the very real lives of individuals, so much so that they can sometimes dictate who can buy their house, who can live where, what is taxed and what isn’t. It’s rotten to the core and needs removed. It certainly shouldn’t be celebrated. Therefore, I am unable to congratulate this person on their award. To be sure, I certainly congratulate them for their work, their effort, their passion to change things for the better. They are an inspiration in that respect. They deserve an award for all they do.
Don’t get me wrong. If you are a Royalist and/or believe in the Empire as something that you have pride in, then by all means, celebrate the honours list and jump for joy if you receive just such an ‘honour’. Also, if you believe – as I believe my friend does – that the award can be used as a conduit to highlight the issue(s) you are passionate about and you see it as a means to an end then fair enough. Knowing this person as I think I do. I believe their overriding consideration was just that, to use the opportunity to speak about the wider issues behind their work (they done this very quickly indeed). The medal was maybe secondary and for that I commend them.
However, I would suggest that there is a way forward, to both getting the 15-minutes-media-coverage that comes with the award and sends a direct message that you are one of the many members of the Public who believe the honours list should be abolished and replaced with a more representative public award system. And here is how to do it.
When asked, will you accept the award? Say yes. Then, when approached by the media about it, you mention nothing about the award itself other than to say you don’t believe in the monarchy and accepted to speak only of the issues that brought you to be nominated in the first place. I mean, let’s face it, most of those awarded an ‘honour’ who are not part of the ‘elite’ gang or are a potential gang member, are people out there doing good. They are usually serving some cause and working hard to make the world a better place. So, use that time to speak directly about the things that you care about. Then, when you go to collect the award, you stand there and when whichever ‘Royal’ is in front of you, you calmy tell them to keep the award, that you think they are a historical anomaly that should have been abolished many years ago, that the ‘honours’ system should be replaced immediately, and they should have the decency to initiate that process themselves. State that medals named after the British Empire have no place in a modern outward-looking democracy that values each person as equal. There may then be another chance to speak to the media and tell of your decision. You could tell them why you refused and again raise the issue you are passionate about.
If this occurred in enough numbers every year, there would follow the inevitable public discourse on the subject, and it may well bring about change as people fell down on either side of that debate. Because, left to the Royal Family or the Conservatives, there will be no change. Labour? Well, they have had their chance to change things, just think of their 1000 year quest to abolish/reform the House of Lords and that answers the question as to if they will ever get round to changing things. No, I believe – as is often the case – that only public action can evoke change. Only by taking a stand and doing so in enough numbers will the conversation move beyond the yearly grumbling about the system.
So, whilst it may not be something to bet your house (or even the copper in your pocket) on happening. If I was to ever be offered such an award, I will accept, raise the issues I care about, then refuse it as I stand before the deliverer. I will state the reasons why to them and any interested media, in the hope that such a thing as an ‘Empire Medal’ is never considered good or worthy of having. Would you join me?