Abandon use of ‘Empire’ in the British honours system, charity leaders urge government

In an open letter to The Times, civil society and public sector leaders requested that honours be conferred in the name of British Excellence

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Charity leaders have called for the widespread use of the word ‘Empire’ in the British honours system to be replaced with ‘Excellence’, in recognition of the need for the UK to “break from its colonial past”.

In an open letter published in The Times, a group of third sector and public sector leaders who have been awarded honours for their services to society asked the government and Queen to reform the acronym.

“As those who are privileged to have been honoured, we invite the government, in consultation with the queen, to agree on a simple, yet extremely important change in title, so that honours are conferred in the name of British Excellence and not of the British Empire,” the letter stated.

The list of signatories include Lord Adebowale CBE, former chief executive of the social care charity Turning Point, Arvinda Gohil OBE, chief executive of the central YMCA, and Lisa Power OBE, LGBT activist and co-founder of Stonewall.

“We believe that our struggle for social justice must recognise the need for the UK to break from its colonial past and strive for a society that makes efforts to include everyone on equal terms at all levels,” the letter stated.

“This means we are taking a long, hard look at our own organisations and what we can do to create a fair, equitable and anti-racist society.”

Poppy Jaman OBE, chief executive of membership organisation the City Mental Health Alliance, initiated the open letter in partnership with Polly Neate CBE, chief executive of Shelter, and Simon Blake OBE, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England.

“I am a British Bangladeshi. This is my home. I have proudly dedicated my career to social good. I love my work, it is purpose-led. I represent British ‘Excellence’. The word ‘Empire’ does not resonate with my sense of integrity,” Jaman wrote in a Twitter thread outlining her dual identity and decision to accept an OBE.

“I would love to feel fully & consistently proud of the OBE. I would like never to be triggered by it. I am here in-spite of the Empire and that is why I am asking for this change.”

Jaman continued: “I think that we are civil society leaders because we care about justice and it is our job to call out what doesn’t feel right or align with our values. That is our purpose. We create change through reflection, dialogue and then most importantly, action. So, this is us recognising how important it is to celebrate and honour, and then guiding society to refresh and represent today. Compassion is key.”

Speaking to Third Sector, Neate said that while many civil society leaders appreciate the benefits that the honours system brings for our organisations and beneficiaries, as well as the “humbling” recognition of their individual work, it was possible to feel the appreciation while being “deeply concerned” by the link with the Empire.

“Civil society leaders are very privileged to receive honours quite frequently and many of us are engaged in the fight for social justice and equality,” she said.

“We believe that with that privilege comes a responsibility to acknowledge Britain's racist colonial past and state clearly that, while we are grateful to have been honoured and particularly for the recognition and benefit it brings to our organisations, we do not identify with colonialism and believe it to be the very opposite of what our organisations stand for.”

Simon Blake, who accepted an OBE for services to the voluntary sector and young people in 2011, said that while the honours system was valuable for the recognition it brought people striving for social justice, charity leaders had a responsibility to “hold a mirror up to what is wrong, and offer solutions”.

“The honours system just needs a simple switch to modernise it,” Blake said.

“We have to decouple from the appalling history of the Empire as part of becoming a more anti-racist society: so let us instead recognise excellence with these awards.”

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