Campaigners call for word ‘Empire’ to be stripped from British honours system

They say awards first established in 1917 are associated with the ‘harm and trauma’ of colonial rule

German-born British author Judith Kerr poses for a picture with her Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal after it was presented to her by the Prince of Wales during the Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace in central London on January 25, 2013. AFP PHOTO/POOL/JOHN STILLWELL (Photo by JOHN STILLWELL / POOL / AFP)
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Dozens of community activists are backing a new campaign to strip the word "Empire" from the British honours system because of the "harm and trauma" caused during years of colonial rule.

The campaign is supported by winners of the Order of the British Empire, a series of medals that for more than 100 years has rewarded contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the Civil Service. The campaign wants to replace the word Empire with Excellence.

Prominent figures, including poet Benjamin Zephaniah and Liverpool's first black footballer, Howard Gayle, rejected honours because of their colonial associations. Gayle – an anti-racism campaigner – said accepting an award would be a "betrayal of all the Africans who suffered under the British Empire".

Backers of the name change include Harriet Lamb, who was given a CBE – Commander of the Order of the British Empire – for her work heading Fairtrade, an organisation focused on improving prices and living conditions for farmers in developing countries.

“I felt distinctly uncomfortable about the Empire wording,” she wrote on the campaign website. “Especially as Fairtrade’s work was exactly about overturning old, colonial relationships of trade – those relationships which left the smallholder farmers and workers who grow our tea, coffee or cocoa from India to Kenya receiving low incomes, while companies based overseas reaped the profits.”

The Excellence not Empire campaign wants the system to be changed so that it becomes an “inclusive source of recognition, celebration and patriotism".

It has written to the government asking for a change. But officials said there were no plans to do so.

The latest list of honours will be revealed later on Friday and the organisers are calling on new recipients to add their support to the campaign.

Previous efforts to change the wording of the awards were rejected in 2004 under the premiership of Tony Blair.

The campaign is part of a broader campaign that recognises the damage caused by the British Empire that grew over several hundred years to control a quarter of the world’s land and population.

A group of 150 lecturers went on strike his week after the refusal by the University of Oxford to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes – a 19th-century mining magnate and ardent colonialist – from one of its colleges.

The defaced statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston went display this week for the first time, after being pulled down and thrown into a harbour in Bristol during a Black Lives Matter protest last year.

One of the founders of the Excellence not Empire campaign, Poppy Jaman, who was honoured in 2018 for her work in mental health, said that changing the name would send a powerful message about the changing nature of British society.

"References to the British Empire in romantic or nostalgic terms are offensive and deeply hurtful, particularly to those whose families and ancestors suffered,” she said.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said there had been considerable reforms to the system to make it more inclusive, with 15 per cent going to black and minority ethnic groups in the most recent list. “There are no plans to change the name of the Order,” she said.