Honours? No, thank you.
Updated: Feb 14
"I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don't know what it's for. " David Bowie, 2003
It's that time of year when the UK Cabinet Office Honours and Appointments Secretariat publishes the list of the recipients of the honours, of which some 2,000 are dished out every year. The honours system is designed to reward exceptional achievement or service, an entirely common and laudable practice.
It's when we look at the titles that we realise that the system is not just anachronistic, but also deeply problematic. An OBE is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an MBE is a Member of the Order of the British Empire. The British Empire? 1. It no longer exists 2. Its legacy is one of repression, destruction, exploitation and greed. Worryingly, a recent poll found that 1/3 of Britons believed the empire had done more good than harm (say what?). For many deserving nominees from racial minorities, the British Empire is an open wound, it is synonym with the enslavement of their ancestors. Accepting an honour that is rooted in the country's colonialist past is thus simply unthinkable. Last year, Labour's Lisa Nandy argued the case for the award of an Order of British Excellence instead. The proposal was, of course, rejected by the government. Severing the honours' ties with the empire would not change history, but it would be a symbolic gesture towards a long overdue reckoning with the past.
So here's my first anti-imperialist rant of the year. A wonderful excuse, if ever one was needed, to talk about David Bowie and how he refused an honour not once, but twice. What a man.
David Bowie photographed by Gavin Evans in 1995