IT is some time since I convened a meeting of SABEA the Society for the Abolition of British Empire Awards - of which I have the honour to be President, Chairman, Treasurer, Secretary and only member. Regular readers of this column may recall that SABEA does not object in principle to awards bestowed on her faithful subjects by Her Majesty The Queen but believes that the Order of the British Empire, which is the most frequently given award, makes its recipients, the Queen herself and Britain look ridiculous. There is no Empire any more and to retain this Order suggests to outsiders that we have either given it up only reluctantly or still think it exists. At one time I reported regularly on SABEA's meetings but after it was gently pointed out to me that the Society was achieving nothing and that, anyway, no one cared a toss about its objectives, I decided to keep its proceedings to myself. However two recent events have led me to think that the time may be ripe to start a recruiting drive for members of SABEA. The first event was the revelation that an official review of the honours system set up by Tony Blair before the last election had reported that the secretive process of selecting names for honours risked losing public confidence if it did not better reflect the meritorious and deserving in society. The report pointed out that while one in 123 diplomats gets an award and one in 3'125 members of the home Civil Service, only one in 15'500 teachers and one in 20'000 nurses had been recognised in the past three years. Only 20 per cent of the highest honours go to women and less than three percent to blacks or Asians. John Major, when prime minister, opened up the system to public nominations and many of these have led to awards but, at best, it is a random process that leaves open the question of how to ensure that all those deserving of an award are properly considered. FOR many years the system of nomination has depended on a network of civil service committees which make recommendations for the areas of public life with which they work closely. I once sat on one of these committees (or possibly a sub-committee or a sub-sub-committee) which made suggestions for people in the advertising business who should be considered for an honour - a reasonable enough arrangement since the organisation I worked for was at that time Britain's largest advertiser and employed no fewer than twenty-five agencies. I mention this because, as a relative newcomer to the process, I was always impressed by the thoroughness and fairness with which the committee undertook its task. Although the recommendations we made were inevitably based on subjective judgements, I could not see any other way to approach the task. The report to the prime minister criticises this civil service committee basis to the honours system but does not suggest what better method might be employed. To replace it would require the setting up of a whole new department to do the job - something that Mr Michael Howard would quickly jump on as yet another case of bureaucratic expansion. SURPRISINGLY, the report says nothing about the farce of awarding Knight Commanders (KCBE), Commanders (CBE), Officers (OBE) and Members (MBE) of the Order of the British Empire - not to mention the lowliest of the low, those street sweepers and lollipop ladies given the BEM (British Empire Medal). Perhaps it was thought the names of honours ostensibly awarded by the Queen are a matter only for the Queen. But this brings us to the second event which decided me to publicise SABEA once more - the ludicrous decision to offer an OBE to Benjamin Zephaniah, a black poet, for his services to literature. When Mr Zephaniah received the letter from No 10 saying that the Prime Minister was minded to submit his name to the Queen he immediately went public with his refusal. As he says, Whoever is behind this offer can never have read any of my work and he points to a poem published in 2001 which begins: Smart big awards and prize money/ Is killing off black poetry/It's not the censors or dictators that are cutting up our art./ The lure of meeting royalty/And touching high society/Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.
But at the heart of Mr Zephaniah's rejection of No 10*s kind offer to submit his name to Buckingham Palace is his sense of outrage that anyone should think he would want to be publicly associated with the concept of empire that my British education led me to believe that the history of black people started with slavery and that we were born slaves, and should therefore be grateful that we were given freedom by our caring white masters. It is because of this idea of empire that black people like myself don't even know our true names or our true historical culture.
Well said, Mr Zephaniah. May I invite you to become an honorary member of SABEA?
I CAN well believe that some people will think Mr Zephaniah was disrespectful towards his monarch in publicly rejecting a recommendation for an award that, as Mr Blair's letter put it, Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to approve. But someone has to point out the inappropriateness and offensiveness of the continuing existence of the Order of the British Empire. Is there any justification for it beyond the fact that it has been in existence since the early years of the last century? Why cannot it be abolished tomorrow and a new Order for Public Service or something similar instituted? What is the problem? Can anyone please explain to me why Britain should go on making itself ridiculous by continuing to make its name its principal award after an institution that no longer exists and whose reputation is, at least, open to debate? Concerning disrespect to the monarch I think that those who have been publicly calling for a knighthood for Clive Woodward and an OBE for Jonny Wilkinson show little respect. If we are to have honours awarded by pressure from the media we are on a very slippy slope. And, by the way, while thinking of new names for our honours, why doesn't Mr Wilkinson exceptionally and uniquely get the long-established Order of the Boot? Finally, on disrespect and all that, I am bound to say that the performance put on by Mr and Mrs David Beckham at Buckingham Palace must surely be open to that accusation also with its tasteless display of conspicuous consumption. Some quite famous people who have received their insignias from the Queen have been surprised when she asked them And what do you do? I was hoping that on observing Mr Beckham's ostentatious display of diamonds she might have put the same question to him. But, apparently, she said, Oh you played last night - which just shows what a really nice lady she is.