The Order of the British Empire (part five): 1993 to 2017

This fifth part in the series marking the centenary of the Order of the British Empire covers a period that witnessed the end of a rank-based approach to many awards, including the British Empire Medal (BEM), and saw reviews that increased public involvement in the honours system and confirmed the government’s commitment to the continuation of the Order.

Reform

For much of the 20th century, the majority of honours – even those for bravery – were allocated on the basis of a candidate’s rank or status, rather than the nature of the services performed. This reflected successive governments’ views about the significance of the work involved, leading to the chief executive of a large company, university or public authority being assessed as having a greater impact on outcomes from a national perspective than more junior staff members, and so the CBE might be right for one and the BEM for the other.

The rank-based approach was made explicit for the armed forces, as the Order’s statutes limited military division appointments to commissioned, warrant and subordinate officers, but restricted the medal ‘to persons subordinate to those who are eligible for the Military Division’. A similar system applied to many decorations with, for example, the Air Force Cross being given to officers and the Air Force Medal to other ranks.

In March 1993, the prime minister John Major said that the time had come to end such distinctions, and the MBE was opened to candidates who had previously qualified for the medal. Several overseas governments retained the old distinction, but the impact has been very slight, because of the material reduction in Commonwealth recommendations since 1993.

John Major also placed more emphasis on rewarding voluntary service and encouraging public nominations, and announced that there should be no assumption that honours would automatically be attached to particular posts in either the public or the private sector – with one exception, which was that judges should still be knighted. His decisions affected the British Empire by ending the automatic GBE for the lord mayor of London, but continuing the DBE for female justices.

The prime minister’s reforms also ended home recommendations for the Imperial Service Order (ISO), which was instituted in 1902 and was mainly granted to members of home and overseas civil services. The Edwardian order suffered from a low public profile, and the prime minister explained that those considered to merit the ISO would now receive the OBE instead. For the British Empire, the most important changes in terms of the number of individuals involved were the ending of home medals and the increased use of the MBE and OBE, which began with the Birthday honours list of 1993 (Gazette issue 53332).

The 1993 reforms were, however, partially reversed in 2011, when David Cameron reintroduced the civil BEM, although the military division was not affected and junior service personnel continue to be eligible for the MBE.

Home awards

The honours system was reviewed in 2004 by the Public Administration Select Committee, which recommended that no further appointments should be made to the British Empire and that a new order should be created in its place. The government did not accept that the case for change had been made, and the Order survived to mark its centenary.

The government now uses nine categories to manage admissions to the British Empire, with quotas being set for a five-year period, currently 2013 to 2018. The present home allocations (in percentage terms) at the OBE to BEM level are:

Category/award

OBE

MBE

BEM

Arts and media

7.1

5.1

3.0

Community, voluntary and local

33.3

45.9

76.3

Economy

16.7

14.3

2.7

Education

12.7

10.7

5.4

Health

7.5

8.6

4.8

Parliamentary and political

2.4

1.7

0.5

Science and technology

2.8

1.5

0.3

Sport

4.0

3.6

4.0

State

13.5

8.6

2.7

The nature of the services within each category can be illustrated by the last half-yearly honours list to be published before the centenary (Gazette issue 61803), as the New Year awards of 2017 reflect the current approach to a system that John Major described as having a continuing and valued role in British life. Many awards marked services that would be familiar to readers of Gazettes of, say, 1937 or 1957, while a few reflected newer aspects of the nation’s life.

Arts and media

The 2017 list noticed musical contributions ranging from pipe bands to the London Symphony Orchestra and Royal Choral Society. Grants were made to the director of the Crafts Council, an organiser of the Notting Hill Carnival, the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Dance, and a prominent cartoonist.

Community, voluntary and local

The principal shift in policy since 1993 has been to promote community work and voluntary and local services, which now provide most of the medallists. The group is widely drawn and encompasses law and order – including police and probation officers – and community service that extends to organisations enjoying long associations with the Order, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service.

The Gazette limited many notices to reporting that the honour was ‘for services to the community’, or explained that recipients had worked as, for example, foster carers, members of mountain rescue teams or community centre staff. The most recent list recognised services as varied as flood and coastal risk management, tobacco control, work with the victims of abuse and the rehabilitation of injured armed service personnel. Honours for work preventing forced marriage and honour-based violence, combating hate crime and working for community cohesion, were also recognised.

Economy

The Order continued its regular role of rewarding business and economic activity, with awards for the chief executive of Lloyd’s of London and the director general of the Institute of Directors, as well as those involved in farming and forestry and individuals employed in prominent businesses.

Education

The education category saw honours being conferred on headteachers and those administering schools and colleges, as well as members of the academic community, such as the professors of law at Queen’s University Belfast, public health at Glasgow and engineering at Liverpool. The advancement of learning was acknowledged with grants to a philosopher and the president of the Society of Chief Librarians.

Health

The health category was headed with a grand cross for Sir Cyril Chantler of a prominent London medical school, and he was joined by health professionals from across the country, including personnel from Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and the Royal College of Nursing.

Awards were also approved for several Red Cross workers, one of the few groups that had been welcomed into the Order since the first list of members was gazetted in the summer of 1917.

Parliamentary and political

The present government’s decision to honour parliamentary and political services brought awards for individuals serving the European Parliament, the Conservative Party and the House of Commons, while changes in the constitutional arrangements since 1993 were evidenced by the inclusion of staff from organisations such as the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Scottish Government.

One of the more unusual areas to be noticed in 2017 touched on the early history of government in the British Isles, as three medals were granted to individuals who had helped to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (and recalled the award of a CBE seventy years earlier for Matilda Talbot, who donated the Lacock Abbey copy of Magna Carta to the nation) (Gazette issue 37835).

Science and technology

The science and technology allocation – accounting for less than half of the awards for sport – saw honours for the director of the Medical Research Council’s Toxicology Unit, the chief executive of the Bio-industry Association and a geologist with the British Antarctic Survey.

The British Empire is one of a number of distinctions that circulate within the scientific community, including the medals of the Royal Society and the Nobel prize. By 2017, the roll of the Order included more than twenty Nobel laureates, including physics holders from the present reign such as Anthony Leggett; the chemists Max Perutz and Frederick Sanger; and the medicine prize winners Godfrey Hounsfield and Peter Medawar.

The Nobel committees recognised achievement in other fields that engaged members of the British Empire, including literature prizes for the writer William Golding and the playwright Harold Pinter, and the peace prize for Joseph Rotblat for trying to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international affairs.

Sport

The existence of parallel state and specialist awards also arose in the world of sport, as the Order’s candidates of 2017 included several medallists from the Olympic Games in Brazil. The Order also recognised more general services to sport through organisations such as the British Paralympic Association.

State

The state awards category was used to mark work in long-established governments departments, such as the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as honours for those serving in more recent creations, such as the departments for International Development and Work and Pensions.

Armed forces

The armed forces continue to be catered for by a separate military division, with the main New Year and Birthday gazettes being supplemented since 1994 by a series of half-yearly consolidated honours lists, which cover a range of operations at home and abroad. The principal areas that have been noticed in recent years include Kosovo and Yugoslavia, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the long-running operations in Northern Ireland, which have resulted in more than 1,750 awards since the early 1970s.

Overseas

Commonwealth interests are still evident in admissions to the British Empire. Several overseas governments have used the Order since 1993, although by New Year 2017, there were only three Caribbean Gazettes – for Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda and St Christopher and Nevis – and a single Pacific Gazette, for the Solomon Islands (Gazette issue 61805).

Only four countries – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Papua and New Guinea – have provided more than 1,000 members of the Order since overseas recommendations were introduced in 1942. After this, the three largest source nations were Mauritius, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Bahamas, while many governments – including those of Jamaica and Uganda – submitted fewer than 100 names before they gained independence.

The last major overseas contributor to the roll of the British Empire was New Zealand, which has provided more than 6,000 members since 1917. The final list to be based on the advice of the Queen’s ministers in Wellington was gazetted in 1996, the year in which the former dominion’s link with the British orders ended, following the creation of the New Zealand Honours System.

Ceremony

The ceremonial life of the Order centres on investitures at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, which are usually performed by the Queen or a member of her family. Similar events take place at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and elsewhere, and John Major’s reforms broadened the royal dimension as BEM candidates who became MBEs were now invited to a royal investiture (they would previously have received their medal from a lord lieutenant or senior official connected with their place of work).

St Paul’s Cathedral in London has retained its role in the Order, and provided a venue for the services of dedication which were attended by members and medallists at four yearly intervals between 1994 and 2012.

Final thoughts on the Order

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – to give the Order its full and formal name – provides an insight into the history of Britain and its imperial past, not least in the way the roll of members and medallists reflects services given during two world wars, and the changing ties that still bind the Commonwealth of nations that grew out of the old empire.

Through the last 100 years, The Gazette has recorded thousands of acts of gallantry that have been deemed worthy of the Order’s badges and medals, as well as the devoted service given by men and women across the globe to a wide range of causes and interests, including work for high remuneration and for no remuneration at all.

The Duke of Edinburgh, writing as the grand master of the Order in the 1990s, concluded that the British Empire had made it possible to recognise contributions to the public good from all walks of life, and had given many thousands of people personal satisfaction, as well as a comforting sense of belonging to a company or fellowship of good citizenship.

These sentiments will no doubt be shared by those who attend the service in St Paul’s Cathedral on 24 May 2017 to celebrate the centenary of the institution of an order of knighthood, which survived the dark days of war to become the United Kingdom’s most important source of national honours.

About the author

Russell Malloch is a member of the Orders and Medals Research Society and an authority on British honours.

See also: The Order of the British Empire (part one): 1917 to 1922