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Should we be impressed by those who OBEy?

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Author George Orwell (1984, Animal Farm)

In the aftermath of the General Election, Britain continues to spiral with most of Europe down the hole of despair, into something that George Orwell wrote about in his 20th century novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. And in this hysteria, imperial thinking is now back on the rise. But that’s not what this post is about. Well, not much.

Every year, the “best of the best” of this country are decorated by the Queen in what’s known as the Honours List. Knighthoods, MBEs, OBEs and CBEs. Nods to the British Empire, racism and colonialism. Watching debates on Sky News’ ‘The Pledge’ has shown me how resistant Britain is to talking about race, but deeper still, its ventures in colonialism overseas.

Amidst the Windrush Scandal and Brexit, that resistance was put onto the world stage. It got me to think about British history but also how specifically working-class people often defend the monarchy and patronage, an institution that despises them. Do people that have been honoured have a feeling of accomplishment by having those three letters after their name? Would their ancestors feel the same way? Or is it a feeling of “I’ve made it,” a ruse of passing from one class into another?

When people are named Member of the British Empire (MBE), it leaves me feeling icky inside. Seeing that after someone’s name, leaves me feeling sick. Order of the British Empire (OBE), Commander of the British Empire (CBE). It’s obsolete, drawing up thoughts of genocide, conquest and stolen land.

When I hear the word “empire,” especially in this country, I think about oppression of minority Britain in the jaws of Little England. It’s reminiscent of how my ancestors were slaves in the Caribbean. It’s Apartheid, the American Revolution, the Suez Crisis, Potato Famine, the Mau Mau, the Amritsar Massacre and so much more. To have that after your name is really to celebrate racism, classism, genocide, stolen land etc etc.

And it’s because of Britain’s nostalgia for this history that I grew up going to school being taught Black history as only slavery. We didn’t even get as far postwar immigration, as that’s the other common denominator of the Black British narrative. It’s because of that, why I don’t know my name.

Not Ventour, that’s a slave name. I don’t know the name my ancestors had before Ventour was forced upon them under the lynch and the lash of Caribbean plantation slavery.

My crisis of identity is not due to history, it’s more so due to the present day climate where British people of colour are routinely having their Britishness contested. I’m staunchly anti-monarchy and anti-empire. And there’s something weird about debating the concept of the Queen’s Honours with people who are either ambivalent to it or are so pro-monarchy that they can’t possibly acknowledge that there’s negative connotations with the Royal institution. I’ve been in quite a few discussions with people about the monarchy. Thankfully, none have gotten ugly and we’re still friends today.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown (Netflix)

These Honours awards are to people that have made significant contributions to society through their professions — from arts, including: theatre, literature and film — to everyday people doing great work in the community, to journalists. That last one, I don’t like. Should journalists really be accepting awards from people they’ve critiqued, or even vilified?

The Honours awards are a slap in the face of multiracial / working-class Britain. When it comes to the British Empire, many have asked “Does the end justify the means?” And my reply to that is, no. How much is life worth to you? You cannot justify torture and genocide. Life isn’t flesh for cash. It’s not a business. And those colonial statues littered throughout Britain, including London, Bristol and Glasgow; all those British streets named for slave traders; all those White imperialistic university module choices.

The concept of “Honours” feels like Britain clinging on to a past bygone. Given the chance, would Britain enslave its Black British population? Would it let three million Indians die in the Bengal Famine if the circumstances were to present themselves again? Would it commit to a Scramble for Africa and a starving Ireland? If these circumstances were to happen again?

Institutionally, The Monarchy sanctioned slavery, and yet, millions still defend it. Truth is, I don’t understand how anyone, regardless of their background can accept awards with attachments as deeply horrific as these ones.

They came out of a system that oppressed people of colour, women and the LGBTQ+ community. There are many Black and brown people that love those awards. It makes them feel accomplished, whilst simultaneously speaking out against racism. Whilst being part of the system they speak out against, they’re some of its proudest members. They are activists against the ruling class but then accept invitations to Buckingham Palace. In breaking their backs for babylon, are they willing to accept chains on their ankles?

These awards go to Joe and Jane Bloggs. They go to musicians, authors, poets, businesspeople, celebrities and more. These awards are given to people, irrespective of class or colour. Seeing those three letters after their name feels like betrayal. Should I bow to them? Do I have to act impressed?

I’m a poet before anything else and have recited my own work, unpicking British history, including empire and conquest, and how those things impact the present day.

I’ve been called racist and anti-White (I’m anti-White Supremacy). But really, I want to reach an audience of people that are willing to listen. That the history we’re taught at school is what my mother would call “chang-chang” — in bits and pieces. Did Christopher Columbus discover America or was he only the first White man to get there? Could the same be said for Captain Cook with Australia? Is explorer a synonym for coloniser?

I’m a storyteller. What in the old days people would call a bard. What the Celts called the Awen. I probably will never be offered one of those awards. And if I was — to accept one would be to lose my dignity. I wouldn’t be able to look my younger brother in the eye. I would lose all pride and respect for myself. Which is why I have so much respect for people that decline them and live their best life, doing what they do best, living livelihoods without want of incentive, be it an OBE or being named Poet Laureate.

The man and legend that is filmmaker Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)

Your Benjamin Zephaniahs and Ken Loaches. Who both showed me that art is more than the Tate, The National Gallery or arthouse cinema.That poetry is more than Tennyson, Blake and Wordsworth, that history is written in black and white. It’s poor people, LGBTQ+ and women and…

“Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now” — The Schuyler Sisters (Hamilton)

And anyone close to me will know why I despise January 1 and The Queen’s Birthday, since it’s the date the the Honours Lists are released. A better honour would be if the British Museum gave those stolen pieces back to places like Ghana and Greece. OBEs, CBEs, MBEs , knighthoods — genocide, slavery, torture, class oppression, massacres and more massacres, war and violence — and it’s 2020. When will the British Empire shut its mouth?

Let history be history. The British Empire is not cause for celebration. For every colonial statue in this land there should be a slave child next to it, or a starving woman, a symbol showing how the end doesn’t justify the means.

Let’s call the British Empire what it was: a business venture that consumed the lives of millions, not something to be worn like a badge of honour, because it is honourless.


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