Honours system branded ‘elitist’ over lack of diversity

The honours system has been criticised for being “elitist” over the lack of diversity among the higher ranks, as campaigners petition for the word “empire” to be dropped from the titles.

This year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, postponed from June to allow nominations for people playing crucial roles during the pandemic, is the most diverse to date, with 13% from a minority ethnic background.

It is a slight increase on the previous highest, 12% in the New Year honours in 2019.

Government policy reports show that increasing diversity is at least being talked about, said Mike McKie, founder of Bayleaf Honours which provides advice and support for those making a nomination for the Queen’s honours.

“But we are still not seeing enough awards going to people of colour, particularly in the higher honours lists,” he added.

Queen Birthday Honours
(PA Graphics)

The highest honour given to recipients recognised for their Covid-19 efforts, who include many key workers, volunteers and fundraisers from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, was an OBE (officer of the Order of the British Empire), which ranks lower than a CBE (commander) and damehood and knighthood.

Data on ethnicity within the 2020 Birthday Honours has not yet been published, but figures from previous years show the lack of diversity among the higher honours such as knighthoods and damehoods, with only 3.2% of non-white people honoured in June last year and none in the New Year list in December 2018.

Mr McKie questioned whether there was enough awareness of the process among underrepresented communities, and highlighted issues around the word empire, which Bayleaf Honours is petitioning to have replaced with the word excellence.

It comes after the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a debate over UK statues and street names that commemorate those who profited from the transatlantic slave trade.

“Is the word empire making the process inaccessible or, worse, distressing, to potential nominees?” Mr McKie said.

“Are people of colour being given the same opportunities as their white counterparts in order to be considered for some of these awards in the first place?

“This demonstrates that there is much we need to do, as a wider community as well as within the honours process, to ensure that we respond to inequality effectively.”

Queen's Birthday Honours 2020 by award
(PA Graphics)

Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, said the British empire’s legacy is poorly understood and that the honours system reflected “how we think history works by picking out the winners”.

When asked whether he thought calls for removing the word empire were reasonable, he said: “Yes, because it’s accurate, it seems pretty obvious the British empire doesn’t exist any more.

“Generally the problem is colonial nostalgia, when Britain was in the empire.

“There is no good reason to call it the Order of the British Empire.”

He accused the Government of “defending a very narrow version of empire” and said that it pushed the message that “we shouldn’t be ashamed of Britain”.

He described the system as problematic when considering the people who have been chosen for the higher honours, which has drawn some criticism after recent forfeitures saw disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein stripped of his honorary CBE after he was convicted of rape.

Other contentious recipients include ex-Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, the architect behind the Government’s controversial Universal Credit welfare reforms, and former director of public prosecutions Alison Saunders, who was made a dame despite a number of controversies during her tenure, including a series of collapsed rape trials.

“The way that it works, there’s so much cronyism when you see who gets honoured for what,” Prof Andrews said.

Figures from the 2020 New Year honours list show 85.3% of higher honour recipients – of whom there were 34 – were white, while the remaining awards went to five black people and none were awarded to other minority groups.

Asian people received more honours than any other ethnic minority group, but of the 60 people who were recognised, the highest rank was CBE, while nearly half (48.3%) were made an MBE (member) the lowest rank before BEM (British Empire Medal).

The BEM, which was scrapped in 1993, was reintroduced in 2012 by then prime minister David Cameron as part of his bid to make the honours system “classless”, saying too few people making a difference in their areas were made MBEs.

Prof Andrews said: “I think that tells you the problem, it’s so elitist.

“The fact that most of the black people I know are lower than MBE, it does show you the hierarchy that is there.”

Joan Armatrading
Joan Armatrading (Ian West/PA)

Singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading, who was made a CBE in the latest honours, said people have “long forgotten” the honours’ association with empire.

“I think it is just a country acknowledging its citizens of things that they have done that they really recognise as being good things,” she said.

“You just have to accept it for that and that is how I accept it.”

Many non-white people have turned down honours because of its association with the British empire and its history of slavery, including poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who rejected an OBE in 2003.

Other notable people of colour to reject honours include spoken word artist George The Poet and Liverpool’s first black footballer Howard Gayle.

In total, 1,495 people have been recognised for their achievements in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, among them footballer Marcus Rashford.

The Cabinet Office said it anticipated further Covid-related nominations, including higher honours, will be brought forward across future lists, and that knight/damehoods are usually made for contribution at a national level “requiring commitment over a long period of time”.