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Should ‘empire’ be dropped from the UK’s honour titles?

‘Excellence Not Empire’ campaign calls for gongs to be distanced from colonial past

A group of public figures is calling for the word “empire” to be dropped from the UK’s system of honours, setting up another potential culture clash with the government.

The activists, who have all received gongs but feel uncomfortable with them being named after imperialism, want the word “empire” to be replaced with “excellence”, The Guardian reports.

Victor Adebowale, chair of the NHS Confederation, John Amaechi, a British-American former basketball star, and Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu, a nurse born to Irish and Nigerian parents, are among the recent honourees calling for the change of language.

The “excellence not empire” campaign argues that “the presence of colonial links within the honours system stands directly in the way of some people participating in it”.

Campaign co-founder Poppy Jaman, who was given an OBE in 2018, said references to the British Empire “in romantic or nostalgic terms” are “offensive and deeply hurtful”, adding: “Using ‘empire’ is not right for our country any more.”

This is not the first time the issue has arisen, with members of the honours committee last autumn suggesting an overhaul of the system that would eliminate the word “empire” from the OBE and MBE honours.

One told The Sunday Times: “The empire [terminology] is ludicrous… nobody would ever think we have an empire now, but I think the word ‘empire’ probably is doomed.”

However, the Cabinet Office announced in December that it did not intend to remove the words, explaining that it would prefer to focus on keeping the awards’ recipients and representatives as diverse as possible instead.

The head of the Honours Secretariat at the Cabinet Office told The Independent at the time that “there are no plans currently to make changes in this area”, adding that the committee was “doing a huge amount of work to make sure that the nominations coming forward help us keep these lists representative of UK society in its widest form”.

News of a new attempt to remove the word empire has already prompted division, with Brexiteer Darren Grimes writing on Twitter that “those who take objection to the use of ‘empire’, a part of our nation’s history, which – running contrary to the torrent of… drivel we’re met with now, isn’t all bad – aren’t forced to accept the honour”.

Geoff Palmer, a human rights activist who was awarded an OBE in 2003, also opposes the campaign. “My ancestors were enslaved and fought to get their freedom from the British Empire,” he told the Daily Express. “Therefore that’s part of my history so I don’t want it removed. The fact we change the word won’t change history.”

It is also unclear how much public support such a change would have, with HuffPost reporting that only 2% of award recipients turn them down.

Former footballer Howard Gayle is a notable outlier, refusing to receive an MBE in 2016 because his ancestors would “be turning in their graves after how [the] empire and colonialism had enslaved them” if he had accepted the award, the Daily Mirror reported.

“If they want to be inclusive and accepting of black people around the UK and the Commonwealth, then they need to change the title of it,” Gayle told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme.

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