Select Committee on Public Administration Written Evidence

Memorandum by Tim Lawes (HON 86)

  I should like to comment on Question 12 in the Paper relating to the concept of an "Order of the British Empire" being outdated and possibly being replaced. My particular interest in this question is that I was appointed as an Officer of the Order in 1996.

  In considering this issue there are, I think, two questions that need to be answered. The first is whether there is any significant demand for a change in the name of the Order, and secondly, given that there was demand for change, whether the advantages of changing the name would outweigh the disadvantages.


  Despite recent publicity given to individuals who have refused appointment to the Order because of their negative perception of its title, the fact remains that for every 1,000 people accepting honours, only 15-20 decline it.

  Refusal may be for a number of reasons, one of which may be unhappiness with the name, but could also be such as believing oneself to be unworthy of the honour being offered, or believing that an award would compromise the recipient's independence or credibility, or not wishing to accept an honour from a government of a particular political persuasion.

  It may of course be that some people who accept appointment to the Order nonetheless would have preferred it to be a different name, but are happy to accept the award anyway. This is a question which could only be answered by questioning members of the Order, and as far as I know this has never been done.

  It also has to be considered whether there is dissatisfaction with the name amongst the public as a whole, and whether this affects the standing of the Order. My experience is that on the occasions when people consider the question of honours, adverse concern may be expressed about particular individuals or groups who happen to receive or not to receive honours, but not about the name of the Order itself. Indeed, I have never had anyone say to me that they consider the name to be wrong or inappropriate.


  The first point to note is that changing the name of the Order of the British Empire to some other designation will effectively mean the termination of the old Order and the creation of a new one. This may not be the intention of those who advocate change, but the reality is that the insignia and other paraphernalia of the Order would have be redesigned (it bears the inscription "For God and the Empire"), and the post-nominal letters (ie, MBE, OBE) would be different unless another wording could be found fitting the existing letters.

  If it is perceived by the public that a new Order is being created, then its unfamiliarity and lack of tradition will result in it facing the same problem as the Order of the British Empire after it was founded in 1917 in establishing itself as a prestigious and worthwhile award. The present Order was widely declined in its early years (there were 761 refusals in its first three years), and it was not until the late 1920's that its reputation stabilised.

  Provided that appointments made to it commanded public approval, a renamed Order would eventually achieve the esteem in which the present Order is held, but it could take years, maybe even decades, to get to this position.

  The flip-side of a new Order being created is the question of the position of the 80,000-odd members of the present Order. It may well be that they will be offered the insignia and trappings of the new Order, but many will be uncomfortable with this "air-brushing" of their original award and will refuse to accept the change. In this case, they will find themselves belonging to a disappearing and increasingly unrecognised group—which is exactly the opposite of the reason they were given awards in the first place, that is, for their work and achievements to be recognised.

  The second problem is what the name should be changed to. Since the Order would be awarded for a wide range of achievement and service, paid and voluntary, civilian and military, its title would need to be necessarily non-specific, but also commanding respect.

  Given that it would be desirable for the new Order to exist long enough (ie, some decades) to achieve a measure of worth and esteem, it would also have to be a title that would stand the passage of time and not become subject to the same objections as "Order of the British Empire".

  Looking at possible political and constitutional developments over the next 50 years (in particular, Scotland achieving independence), I do not believe it is safe to assign any new title referring to "Britain" or "British" or "United Kingdom" to the Order without the risk that it will in due course become as obsolete as "British Empire".

  Titles containing the obvious words "Merit" and "Honour" would be confused with the existing Orders of Merit and of the Companions of Honour. Those referring to "Community Service" or "Voluntary Service" would not encompass the full range of activities the present Order is awarded for.


  The Order of the British Empire has built up a substantial weight of tradition and history in the 87 years of its existence, and appointment to it is seen by most people as a prestigious and worthwhile honour.

  The title is self-evidently anachronistic, but as with many other institutions in this country that give Britain its distinctive character, I do not believe there is any great desire for it to be altered. On the contrary, in a time of rapid and accelerating change, many look to the permanence of such parts of national life as a reassurance.

  The price of such a change would do far more to bring the honours system into disrepute than leaving the name as it is.

Tim Lawes

April 2004

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 13 July 2004