Former footballer Howard Gayle made headlines for a second time this week for declining an MBE, this time suggesting that the name of the honour should be changed to remove the reference to the British Empire.
It is important to remember that the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” is an order of chivalry, so named because it was instituted during the time of the British Empire by King George V. The name is not supposed to imply that it is an honour awarded by the British Empire, any more than the Order of the Bath implies that its members are the ones who assist the Queen in bathing.
Having said that, it’s hard not to have sympathy with Mr Gayle’s view, and he is not the only one to object to an honour on the grounds of its name. Back in 2004, a committee of MPs looked into the honours system, and recommended changing the name to the “Order of British Exellence”. They reasoned that it needed to retain the same abbreviations, MBE, OBE, etc. as everyone was familiar with these, and that otherwise existing recipients would feel their honour was outdated and worth less than newer ones. One commentator at the time remarked that it sounded more like an award from a trade organisation. Quite apart from the suggested name sounding ridiculous, orders of chivalry can not just have their names changed like that. They could institute a new order, and if desired stop appointing people to the old one, but our history should not be messed around with, and I would have expected members of parliament to be better informed.
Other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have stopped appointing to the Order of the British Empire and instituted new, alternative orders. Existing recipients retained their old honours and postnominals such as OBE, and it seems there was no confusion or feeling that older awards were devalued. Rather than mess about with historic orders, why not create a new one? As we now have the longest-serving monarch in history, what better name than the Royal Elizabethan Order, taking the Royal Victorian Order as its precedent? It could have the same ranks as the Order of the British Empire, and postnominals ending either “EO” or “RE”. The former would match the Victorian Order, but MRE, ORE, etc. would look more similar to MBE, OBE, which would perhaps go some way towards placating people such as the MPs on that committee.
The Queen has said that she doesn’t want to see any changes to her grandfather’s Order during her reign. What better way to commemorate the Queen’s reign, whenever in the future it finally comes to an end, than by instituting a new order of chivalry in her name?