Knighthoods, Damehoods et al: British badges of honour

Britain’s honours system has evolved over more than 650 years, recognising and rewarding exceptional service and achievements, but there are growing demands for reform, not least to replace Empire with Excellence in the titles



By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 6 Jan 2022, 9:36 PM

It is a ritual that I and most London-based journalists reporting for news organisations in Asia go through twice a year: trawling through the list of people named for Britain’s civilian awards published on December 31 and on Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday in June. There was a time when few individuals from the Asian community would be awarded knighthood, damehood, OBE, CBE or MBE, but the Asian presence in the lists has grown exponentially in the last two decades, reflecting success in various fields.

Together, the lists name nearly 3,000 people every year, who receive their awards from the Queen and other members of the royal family. The latest New Year Honours List includes nearly 100 individuals from the community, including a KBE (Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for Ajay Kumar Kakkar, professor of surgery at University College London. And the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2021 named Lancashire-based educationist Hamid Patel for the title of Knight Bachelor.

Britain’s honours system and titles are among the oldest and most known across the globe, often reflected in popular culture, including in the political sitcom Yes Minister and Shakespeare’s Othello (“I have done the state some service, and they know’t” — Act V, Scene II). There are broadly nine Orders under which the honours are bestowed; the oldest being the Most Noble Order of the Garter founded in 1348.

Four of the nine Orders are in the personal gift of the Queen, while others are nominated through a closely-monitored system by the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary. The largest number of individuals figures in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (established 1917) with titles such as CBE (Commander), OBE (Officer) and MBE (Member). Several elites in former colonies were bestowed such awards, while some honours became obsolete during the process of de-colonisation, such as the Order of the Star of India, the Order of the Indian Empire and the Order of St Patrick, which was once conferred on Irish peers by the British monarch.

Britain has changed considerably since the time the Orders were established. The Empire is long gone, and so is its memory for most of the young generation that has grown in a multicultural Britain with all its opportunities and challenges. The honours system continues to evoke respect in the majority of the British public, particularly for the achievements of the ordinary honorees in various fields, though a parliamentary committee has expressed concern that less than half of the public feel that it is ‘open and fair to all’.

Despite efforts to change this perception, celebrities and sports stars are viewed as more likely to receive honours than people with years of service to their local communities. There is also still a belief that honours are used to thank donors to political parties or received automatically at senior levels of the civil service, it notes.

The system aims to celebrate the people who go above and beyond to change the world around them for the better; it particularly seeks to recognise those who selflessly volunteer their time and efforts; gain the respect of peers; display moral and physical courage; or show real innovation and entrepreneurship.

A large number of medical professionals dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic were honoured in recent lists. The joy of being named for one of the awards is apparent on social media and the news soon after the lists are published.

For example, it has been a unique journey for Nottinghamshire-based educationist Asha Khemka, from the small town of Sitamarhi in 
Bihar to Buckingham Palace, to receive the 
honour of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the female equivalent of knighthood. She arrived in Britain with her family in 1978 without any English language skills and went on to change the lives of thousands of British students.

She is the second woman of Indian origin to be awarded the top honour for women since the Order was instituted (the first was 
Maharani Lakshmi Devi of Dhar in 1931). Khemka says: “To receive such recognition is deeply humbling. This is a shared honour, shared with everyone who I have worked with over the years. My passion for Further Education is impossible to describe and grows more so every day. I am immensely proud to be part of this amazing sector.”

Honouring politicians

If such achievement is hailed widely, there is also outrage at politicians being honoured. The latest example is former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been named by the Queen for the title of Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter in the New Year Honours List 2022. Nearly 700,000 people signed a petition calling for his knighthood to be removed. Recalling Blair’s role in the Iraq conflict, actor Angus Scott, who launched the petition, told BBC: “Tony Blair is the least deserving person of any public honour, particularly anything awarded by Her Majesty the Queen. I thought it (the petition) might pick up a few hundred signatures, but obviously it taps into a deep feeling that’s pretty obvious around the country. The honours system itself — people are starting to question if it’s appropriate. But if I get enough signatures on the petition, it will give a clear message that 
this country is a democracy and that the establishment has to start listening to people. He’s been out of office for more than 14 years, 
but an awful lot of people have very strong feelings about Tony Blair’s record, and they have to be heeded.”

Blair’s credentials for the honour are hotly debated, but it adds another episode to public ennui against the political establishment. Every prime minister exiting Downing Street can also nominate MPs and other associates for such honours, which is not part of the annual two lists. Besides, a committee of the House of Commons detailed several instances of financial considerations influencing honours, expressing concern at the use of honours as the “lubricant of the state”.

In the 1920s, Maundy Gregory, a 
fixer, encouraged by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, systematically sold honours to raise money for political purposes, the committee noted, adding that the 1922 Birthday List contained a barony for Joseph Robinson, a convicted fraudster who had paid Gregory £30,000 
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.

The concerns have prompted several reviews and changes to the honours system by MPs and others over the years. In 2011, the British 
Empire Medal (BEM) was reintroduced after it was discontinued by Prime Minister John 
Major in 1993. One of the changes recommended by the Public Administration Select Committee is to discontinue the Order of the British Empire and launch a new Order of British Excellence keeping with the changes in history and modern impulses.

Major told the committee: “In order to remove one of the persistent criticisms of the system, I would now be inclined to propose an ‘Order of British Excellence’ with Awards at the level of Companion (i.e., CBE), Order (OBE) and Member (MBE). This is minimum change for maximum effect. It retains the familiar abbreviations whilst removing reference to an Empire that no longer exists.” Former chancellor Alistair Darling added: “We do not have one (an empire). In some way, we are in a difficult position. We are making someone a Commander of the British Empire and we are in no position to offer him such a command.”

The committee supported the change, called for adopting the more stringent Australian system of awarding honours, and also recommended that the number of Orders and their levels be reduced. But the government rejected the idea that the Order of the British Empire be changed, since it is regarded with affection and respect by very many people, not only in the United Kingdom.

As Hayden Phillips, senior bureaucrat who reviewed the honours system, says: “Some people believe the whole system should be swept away. Others would abolish traditional titles and historic Orders. Some of those who hold these views hold them with a passionate intensity. But I do not believe that there is a broad public opinion that is seriously opposed to having a national system through which the Queen, as Head of State, confers recognition on the contribution of individuals to our society.

Put more simply the honours system is our way, within our cultural history, of saying thank you, publicly. Many other countries do the same — with titles and orders — which reflect their cultural history whether that is more ancient or more recent than ours.”

Forfeiting, refusing honours

Rules have been tightened in recent years to ensure that honorees who bring the system into disrepute forfeit their titles. For example, Fred Goodwin, who as the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was knighted in the 2004 Birthday Honours List for services to banking, had his title annulled in January 2012 for his role in the bank facing a major challenge in 2008 that led to the government providing £20 billion of new equity to recapitalise it to ensure its survival and prevent the collapse of confidence in the British banking system.

The process of his forfeiture itself became controversial, but the then chancellor, George Osborne, justified it, saying: “RBS came to 
symbolise everything that went wrong in the British economy over the past decade.” Several individuals have had their titled revoked 
over the years for various reasons, including criminal convictions.

For many, being named in the two lists is the ultimate honour, but for others it is reflective of a relic tainted by colonialism and slavery. There are individuals like Indian origin composer 
Nitin Sawhney who refuse the honours; he refused an OBE in 2007 because of the Iraq conflict and the word ‘Empire’ in the honour, but accepted a CBE in 2019 after his father’s death, recalling that his father wanted him to accept the honour.

The insignia of the Order of the British Empire still bears the words: ‘For God and the Empire’. Those who refused honours for various reasons include writer Rudyard Kipling, poet Benjamin Zephaniah, writer Graham Greene, director Danny Boyle, ‘Beatle’ John Lennon and writer Doris Lessing.


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