Getting a gong: A royal honour

Britain’s honours system with ancient origins has many categories, the most coveted and known being Knighthood, OBE, CBE and MBE. But there are also rows, refusals and demands that the ‘E’ that stands for Empire in the titles be replaced with Excellence

By Prasun Sonwalkar

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram


Queen Elizabeth II (R) invests British actress Dame Judi Dench with the Insignia of a Companion of Honour at Buckingham Palace in London 26 October 2005. AFP PHOTO/FIONA HANSON/POOL/PA
Queen Elizabeth II (R) invests British actress Dame Judi Dench with the Insignia of a Companion of Honour at Buckingham Palace in London 26 October 2005. AFP PHOTO/FIONA HANSON/POOL/PA

Published: Sat 18 Jun 2022, 8:50 PM

It’s something of a ritual of most London-based journalists writing for an Asian audience: to comb through, twice a year, a long list of names to be awarded royal honours for achievements in various fields, and identify who among Britain’s large Asian community will ‘get the gong’ (‘gong’ was once a slang for military decoration, but now refers to a medal). The names are released twice a year, once in the New Year’s Honours List (on December 31), and again on Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday (she celebrates two birthdays each year: her actual birthday on April 21 and her official birthday on the second Saturday in June).

The latest list of 1,134 names was released on June 1, two weeks earlier than usual, to coincide with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, and continued the trend in recent years of Asian and other non-white recipients constituting between 10 and 15 per cent of those honoured. The individuals included Rohinton Minoo Kalifa (for service to financial services) and Aziz Sheikh (for services to Covid-19 research and policy) — both named for Knighthood, who will be able to prefix their names with ‘Sir’ after receiving the accolade from the Queen or a member of the royal family later in the year. In all, there were nearly 150 individuals from the Asian and minority communities, recognised for their work through honours such as MBE, OBE, CBE and BEM, reflecting their increasing contribution to British society. Leading members of the community awarded Knighthood or Damehood in recent years include Pratibha Gai, Parveen Kumar, Asha Khemka, Tejinder Virdee, Harpal Singh Kumar, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Shankar Balasubramanian and Harshad Bhadeshia.

Throughout British history, monarchs have rewarded those who have shown service, loyalty or gallantry with gifts or titles, which finds reflection in Shakespeare’s Othello (Act V, Scene III): “I have done the state some service, and they know’t”. After medieval times, physical gifts, such as land or money were replaced by the awarding of knighthoods and of membership within orders of chivalry, accompanied by insignia such as gold or silver chains. As democracy and government evolved and parliament’s legislative role grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Cabinet Office took over the role of selecting recipients of the honours. Until the beginning of the 19th century, only members of the aristocracy and high-ranking military figures could be appointed to an order of chivalry, but from then onwards appointments were drawn from a wider variety of backgrounds. During the days of the British Empire, many local elites in various colonies were given royal honours, including in the Indian sub-continent.

In 1917, the Queen’s grandfather, George V, developed a new order of chivalry, called the Order of the British Empire, as a way of rewarding men and women who had made an outstanding contribution to the World War I effort. Now, the Order rewards individuals in a wide range of areas, from acting to charity work to political service, with honours that include the well-known MBE (Member of the British Empire), CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and OBE (Officer of the British Empire).

Honours are awarded by the Queen, who is the ‘fountainhead of honour’, but most of the names are recommended by the Prime Minister through the Cabinet Office; the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary also submit lists of recommendations. These recommendations arise from nominations, made by organisations or members of the public, familiar with the work of the candidate. Who gets an honour, and the honour they get, is decided by one of several subject-based honours committees, which also advise the Prime Minister.

Sometimes, on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, honorary decorations are awarded to foreign nationals who have made a significant contribution to relations between the UK and their own country. For example, Indian industrialist Ratan Tata was awarded the honorary Knight Grand Cross (GCB) of the Order of the British Empire for his services to UK-India relations, inward investment to the UK and philanthropy; American citizens awarded honorary Knighthood or Damehood include Dwight D Eisenhower, Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Angelina Jolie, Yehudi Menuhin, Ronald Reagan and Steven Spielberg. Sometimes, Orders are also exchanged between the Queen and overseas Heads of State as formal and official awards by which one nation honours another.

Official figures show that there are currently nearly 125,000 men and women members of the Order of the British Empire, and normally around 1,100-1,200 are appointed at each honours round. Besides the ranks in various Orders, the Queen also honours personnel in military, emergency, police, ambulance and other services.

Most honours awarded today are part of the Order of the British Empire, which was established in 1917. Almost from the beginning of the modern system, there was controversy about who should receive the honours, with suggestions of impropriety, particularly in the award of honours for political service. The system has been reviewed and reformed several times since it was established. The civil or political service category has always been one which attracted particular attention and controversy. Almost as soon as the Order was established there was concern about instances of impropriety and the possible award of honours in return for payment to a political party. In the 1920s, the honours broker Maundy Gregory, encouraged by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, systematically sold honours to raise money for political purposes. The 1922 Birthday List contained a Barony for Sir Joseph Robinson, a convicted fraudster who had paid Gregory £30,000 (Dh135,002) for the privilege. The King was concerned enough to write to Lloyd George to ask him to treat honours with more care, criticising the “questionable circumstances” in which awards had been granted.

Such ‘cash-for-honours’ rows have hit the headlines at various points over the decades, particularly during 2006 and 2007 during the prime ministership of Tony Blair, when links were revived between political donations and honours, particularly life peerages. Several individuals in politics are usually named for honours in the two annual lists, while a ‘resignation honours list’ entitles prime minister to honour individuals while resigning from office. David Cameron’s resignation honours list in August 2016 was the first time an outgoing prime minister issued such a list, specifically on resignation, since John Major in 1997 (since 1963, only four retiring prime ministers have issued resignation honours lists). Cameron’s resignation list named 58 individuals for the range of honours, including Knighthood, Damehood, CBE, OBE, MBE, while Major’s list included 50 names and Margaret Thatcher’s 42.

Not all recipients of the royal honours remain worthy of it. The honour can be removed if the conduct of the holder is unworthy to retain it, through a process known as ‘forfeiture’. There is a Forfeiture Committee, which makes recommendations to the Queen, through the Prime Minister. The honour can be taken away if the recipient is sentenced to prison for at least 3 months for a criminal offence or struck off by a professional or regulatory body for something directly relevant to their honour (such as a doctor being struck off the medical register). Several individuals have had their honours forfeited over the decades. The Queen’s art adviser Anthony Blunt was stripped of his knighthood in 1979 after being revealed as a Soviet spy, and former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin, who was heavily criticised over his role in the bank’s near collapse, had his knighthood removed in 2012. Entertainer Rolf Harris lost his CBE in March 2015 following his conviction for indecent assault.

The word ‘Empire’ is embedded in several titles in the honours system, but, as we know, the British Empire is long gone; Britain today is modern and multicultural coming to terms with its history of colonialism. Many are uneasy with the mention of ‘Empire’ in the titles, with growing demand that the word be replaced with ‘Excellence’: for example, Member of the British Empire (MBE) is sought to be renamed as ‘Member of British Excellence’, thus preserving the known abbreviation. The change is supported by several community organisations and individuals. Nearly 100 individuals who received the honours in the past founded a campaign called ‘Excellence Not Empire’ in December 2021, pushing for the change, while the recent Black Lives Movement added impetus to the demand.

The campaign says: “Our honours system should be a source of pride for the whole country. One simple and symbolic change from Empire to Excellence will make sure it can be. The presence of colonial links within the honours system stands directly in the way of some people participating in it and prevents the system from being the inclusive source of recognition, celebration and patriotism that all of us in civil society want it to be…As modern Britain learns to confront the true nature of colonialism, we can no longer dismiss the subjugation, segregation and extermination of colonialised people as a neutral or even benevolent period in our history. References to the British Empire in romantic or nostalgic terms are offensive and deeply hurtful, particularly to those whose families and ancestors suffered. Furthermore, using ‘empire’ within a national system for honouring integrity, achievement and excellence, is not right”.

In fact, the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons recommended in 2004 that there should be no further appointments to the Order of the British Empire; instead, a new Order, the ‘Order of British Excellence’ should be founded, a prospect supported by John Major, who previously opposed it. But the government said in its response to the committee: “The Government does not believe that the case has been made for change to the Order of the British Empire. It is regarded with affection and respect by very many people, not only in the United Kingdom. But the Government is conscious that for some the title of the Order of the British Empire feels anachronistic in a different sense to other historic titles. The Government will consider the matter further, without prejudice as to whether there should be any change. The Government does not believe that the case has been made for phasing out the awards of knighthoods and damehoods or knights bachelor. These play a well-respected, understood and valued part in our national life”.

Types of honours

Knights and Dames

The honour of knighthood has origins in medieval chivalry. It is conferred through the accolade, or the touch of a sword by the sovereign. A knight is styled ‘Sir’ and their wives ‘Lady’. Women receiving the honour are styled ‘Dame’ but do not receive the accolade. The honour is given for a pre-eminent contribution in any field of activity.

The Order of the Bath

Founded in 1725 for service of the highest calibre, the Order has a civil and military division and is awarded in the following ranks: Knight Grand Cross (GCB), Knight Commander (KCB) and Companion (CB). The Order takes its name from the symbolic bathing which, in former times, was often part of the preparation of a candidate for knighthood.

Order of St Michael and St George

Founded by King George III in 1818, it is awarded to British subjects who have rendered extraordinary and important services abroad or in the Commonwealth. Ranks in the Order are Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GCMG), Knight or Dame Commander (KCMG or DCMG) and Companion (CMG).

Order of the Companions Honour

This is awarded for service of conspicuous national importance and is limited to 65 people. Recipients are entitled to put the initials CH after their name.

Orders of the British Empire

King George V created these honours during World War I. The ranks are Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE). They are now awarded for prominent national or regional roles and to those making distinguished or notable contributions in their own specific areas of activity.

British Empire Medal

Founded in 1917, it was awarded for meritorious actions by civilians or military personnel. The recipients do not attend a royal investiture. It was scrapped in 1993 by former Prime Minister John Major but was revived in 2012.

Royal Victorian Order

The ranks are Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GCVO), Knight or Dame Commander (KCVO or DCVO), Commander (CVO), Lieutenant (LVO) and Member (MVO).

Royal Victorian Medal

Associated with the Royal Victorian Order is the Royal Victorian Medal which has three grades: gold, silver and bronze. The circular medal is attached to the ribbon of the Order.

Royal Red Cross

Founded in 1883 by Queen Victoria, the award is confined to the nursing services. Those awarded the first class are designated ‘Members’ (RRC): those awarded the Second Class are designated ‘Associates’ (ARRC).

More news from