It’s that time of year again, when the Queen divvies out her biannual honours to the great and the good of the land. Among them will be recipients of CBEs, MBEs & OBEs, which are ‘appointments to the Order of the British Empire’ and reward people’s contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable organisations and for public service.
I’m no flag-waving, bunting-loving member of the Royal fan club but I’ll save that rant for another day. I take no issue with celebrating people for their achievements and contributions, but what I can’t get my head around is why some of the highest accolades in this land are in the name of the now defunct British Empire? Why do we still think that’s appropriate?
A YouGov poll in 2014 found that 59% of Brits think the British Empire is something to be proud of. One-third said they would like it if Britain still had an empire. I find this astounding, but sadly not surprising. As a nation, we are afflicted with historical amnesia, quick to recall a glorious past but leaving out the inglorious details.
My own family history straddles both sides of empire. My dad is from Jamaica and my ancestors would’ve gone through unfathomable cruelty and hardships to enrich the country we now call home. On the other hand, my mum is half-Polish, 1/4 Swiss and 1/4 English.
My English connection comes from my great-grandfather. He was an engineer in the British colonial service and spent much of his life travelling around the colonies.
I have one of his maps from his time in Tanzania — or German East Africa as it was called then, before the Brits swiped it from Germany during WWI. In it are his hand-drawn markings of mines and railway lines. He’s written ‘diamonds’ next to a place called Pambani.
To have this physical and ancestral connection to this side of the British Empire is both fascinating and unsettling.
This is what the British Empire means to me. It was the most unequal of relationships. It was centred on enriching one nation at the expense of many. It was based on a sense of supremacy and entitlement. Yes, the Brits brought the railways to India – but it was to transport pilfered riches to fatten Britain’s coffers, not an act of benevolence.
To many generations, Empire meant trauma. It meant being uprooted from ancestral lands, being treated as second-class citizens in your own country or as less than human. People and places are still reeling from those effects today. As a nation, Britain needs to reckon with all aspects of this past — the good, the bad and the ugly.
If Brexit showed us anything, it’s that we’re a nation in need of some serious soul-searching. The world has changed, and so has Britain’s place in it. What does it mean to be British today? What are the things that make us proud to be British? How do we create a national identity we can all feel a part of? And why is so much of this country’s identity and self-esteem based on what was a damaging chapter of history for many?
The British Empire is no badge of honour. MBEs, OBEs and CBEs reek of mothballs and oppression and are outdated symbols of something that no longer exists. It’s time for us as a nation to take the rose tints off. Getting rid of — or rebranding — these titles is one place to start.