4 The reintroduction of the British
Empire Medal, and the term "Empire"|
69. In October 2011, the Prime Minister announced
the reintroduction of the British Empire Medal (BEM) for between
270 to 300 "local volunteers who make a real difference to
their communities" in each honours round. The award of the
BEM had been discontinued by the then Prime Minister, Sir John
Major, in 1993. Sir John said that the distinction between the
award of a Member of the British Empire and a BEM had become "increasingly
tenuous [and could] no longer be sustained".
70. Several Lords Lieutenant supported the reintroduction
of the BEM and the intention to recognise contributions that are
not of a level that would normally receive an MBE.
Colonel Martin Amlot, a Deputy Lieutenant of Merseyside, commented
that the withdrawal of the BEM in 1993 was "well intentioned
but ill-advised" and "resulted in large numbers of members
of the community being disenfranchised".
Mr Clark, the Lord Lieutenant of Renfrewshire, described the reintroduction
of the BEM as the "best part" of the honours system
in recent time, and called for more than the current limit of
300 to be distributed in each honours round.
71. The reintroduction of the BEM prompted a
wider discussion on the use of the word "Empire" in
the honours system. We heard mixed evidence suggesting that the
word was outdated. Alistair Darling told us:
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
George Reid, the Lord Lieutenant of Clackmannanshire,
argued that the use of the word "Empire" was "inappropriate
to a post-imperial UK", and cited the experience of a local
resident in his lieutenancy, whose family came from a former colony
of the British Empire who had said he would not be able to accept
an honour "named after a system his family had fought to
72. Lord Jones argued that the word "Empire"
posed problems for British businessmen abroad:
You go round the world and somebody says, "So
and so is with you. He's a CBE. What does that stand for?"
The moment you say the word "Empire" you wish you did
not have to. At one end you get the opium wars; at another you
get some battle for independence. All over it smacks of arrogance.
73. Sir John Parker, the Chair of the Economy
Honours Committee, provided a contrasting view, suggesting that
in parts of the world, such as China, the history and traditions
behind the British honours system added to its value. He argued
We should not throw tradition over in talking about
the words "OBE", because there is a value in these historic
orders and awards.
The Director General for Honours in the Welsh Government,
Bernard Galton argued that the negative connotations of the word
empire were balanced out by those who felt the term reflected
the history of the order.
74. The evidence we received was that only one
or two people in the 2012 Birthday Honours round rejected an honour
because of the word "Empire".
Graham Smith of the pressure group Republic argued, however,
that even if just a minority would not accept an honour because
of the word "Empire", it would be grounds enough to
75. We took evidence on a possible replacement
for the term "Empire". Both Sir Garth Morrison and Mr
Briggs told us they would welcome in principle the use of a different
term, such as "excellence" to replace the word "Empire",
as recommended by the Public Administration Select Committee in
the previous Parliament.
Lord Jones recommended keeping the initials of the three
orders MBE, OBE and CBE, but altering the title. He thought that
the word British should be retained but the other words changed
to highlight a more direct link to the monarch, emphasising that
the gift is from the Queen, and not the Government.
Sir James Cropper, the Lord Lieutenant of Cumbria suggested
changing the title of the Order to "The Queen's Order for
Service" or "The Queen's Commonwealth Order".
The Duchess of Northumberland, the Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland,
suggested renaming the BEM the "'British Citizen Medal".
76. Richard Tilbrook, the Head of the Honours
Secretariat in the Cabinet Office sought to place the title of
the Order in context, noting that the Order of the British Empire
was founded during a time of Empire in 1917.
He also explained that there was a significant obstacle
to changing the name of the order:
When the order was established, the statutes made
it very clear and the Queen's grandfather said it was to be "known
forever thereafter" as the Order of the British Empire and
"by no other designation". What that means in practice
is, if you want to change the name of the order, you have to close
the order and start a new one.
Mr Tilbrook added that he thought it would be an
"odd" time to close the Order of the British Empire,
as the country celebrates the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the
upcoming centenary of the Order of the British Empire in 2017.
77. The reintroduction of the
British Empire Medal allows for greater recognition of hundreds
of people across the country who devote great time to their communities.
Whilst we welcome this, the title of the honour was disliked by
some witnesses, because of the connotations of the word "Empire".
We recognise that the title may need to change in the future,
but recognise that this is not as straightforward as it would
first appear: the name of the Order of the British Empire is enshrined
in statute and cannot simply be changed: the Order itself would
have to be closed. This would require fresh statutes. In recognition
of the existing Order's proud history and of the service and bravery
of its members, we do not recommend any changes ahead of the Order's
centenary in 2017.
113 HC Deb, 4 March 1993, col 454 Back
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