Burn Babylon: The UK Honours System, Corruption, and Metrics of (Dis)OBEdience

Tré Ventour-Griffiths
18 min readJan 8, 2023

Contrary to the more popularised ‘institutional racism’, terms like ‘institutional whiteness’ are not so widespread in wider public discussions. Yet, it must be said the so-called ‘diversification’ of the UK Honours list is as interesting as it is alarming. Here, I observe many Black people allocated space to speak in popular media are establishmentarians — this aura of ‘respectability’ was particularly fervent at the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests showing an offkey relationship between cognitive dissonance, Honours, and inclusion into white establishments.

By ‘honours’ I mean those medals that are awarded twice yearly on recommendation from the Honours Committee. Dubpoet, author and activist Benjamin Zephaniah famously rejected an ‘Officer of the Most Excellent Order British Empire’ [OBE] award in 2003 due to its links with plantation enslavement and coloniality. Writing in 2020, journalist Mattha Busby tells us rejections for Honours have doubled since 2010. However, whilst people like Zephaniah continue to speak truth about power, there is a sustained cultural public investment in The Crown — where association, still, is shrouded in ‘respectability’. So, as Black people, our inclusion into the establishment appears as a symbolic greenlighting of white supremacy.

During the debates around the Royal Family amid the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, historian Renée Landell in an Al-Jazeera news programme says:

“Some may say that removing The Crown … is just symbolic but I would argue that even symbolic power is power because symbols give out messages to the world. What are we communicating? What do we believe in? This is really really important when you’re thinking about civic engagement … liberty … about just laws. ” — Renée Landell (2022)

If historical events of 1981 like the Black People’s Day of Action and the Brixton Uprisings showed us anything, it’s resistance need not be respectable. But increasingly, I see a society that wants ‘nice solutions’ to violent and complex problems no less than university EDI groups — which in my opinion are not as radical as many of the Black art movements that formed in the 1970s and 1980s. We have regressed; however, in my experience, neoliberlism has created the conditions for more people to position state validation ahead of the respect and voices of our neighbours.

Journalist Ash Sakar said:

“The problem with liberal identity politics is that it puts recognition from the state above self-organisation and above collective struggle and above solidarity. So, if we want those ingredients to mean anything we’ve got to divest ourselves of the desire to be recognised by those at the top and start recognising each other.”

The sentiment expressed by Ash Sakar reminds me of the character Albert Perks in The Railway Children who cares more for the respect of his neighbours than material trinkets. This character played by the late Bernard Cribbins in the 1970 adaptation revisits how once upon a time, in some communities, one knew who your neighbours were. Some of us were forced to revert back to that during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

In parallel, this comes attached to a reality where few have learned the history of the working-class in the UK — not the Miners Strikes; not William Cuffay as the Black leader of the Chartist Movement; not the South Asian women at front of Grunwick; not the politics of Claudia Jones. And that is by design! For many of my age (born 1995–2000), now early career, we have no context for striking at its present scale. Compounded with the Cost of Capitalism, many young people are not accustomed to this level of strife.

My parents were teenagers during the Miners Strike (1984) and in their late teens/early twenties during the Poll Tax Uprisings (1990). Prior, my grandparents recall Grunwick (1976). As a twenty-something now, strikes are ‘less normalised’ to youth culture (but are prevalent) in comparison to the Britain my grandparents came to in the early 1960s, and the country my parents were born into during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Meanwhile, those positioned as ‘heads’ of social justice movements (by the state) are also some of those accepting empire medals. It is a bitter pill to swallow (for some) the Honours System — that fuels individualism over community — must be abolished. Black, Brown and white awardees will have to let go of these trinkets if any form of equality is to be achieved.

Each year, social media holds space for a reply to those establishmentarian ‘activists.’ For example, in 2021, feminist and activist Chardine Taylor-Stone made a very important point about Honours and how ‘change from within’ is ultimately nonsensical.

Politics and patronage have long been linked. Byline Times editor Peter Jukes tell us it is illegal to offer Honours awards in hope of donations but “55% of those who donated more than 1.5m get an honour or peerage.” As far back as 2005, John Lidstone’s article in The Independent comments on the intersection between Honours and corruption under Tony Blair’s government. More recently, Blair was made a Knight of the Garter (an award that is not handed out so freely — most famously going to colonisers like King Leopold II of Belgium and Churchill). Honours is not just a legacy of Britain’s long-reaching Empire, but further shows a relationship between the power of politics and the power money.

The fact the Downing Street Parties and the Owen Paterson Scandal were treated as an inconvenience rather than a crisis, speaks volumes — that Britain excuses itself from ‘being corrupt’ — contrary to criticisms of Global South nations including India’s COVID response, as discussed by ByLine Times Editor Hardeep Matharu in a 2021 Double Down News broadcast. Seemingly, corruption is enveloped by whiteness where the possibility of ‘being corrupt’ is exported to Black and Brown nations, as well as to Eastern Europe — Britain couldn’t possibly be corrupt — what a load nonsense!

Considering increasing discord to the Royal Family amid #HusseyGate and racism against Meghan Markle, further to the discussions on colonialism surrounding the Jubilee and following The Death of the Queen — the Honours System is part of this discussion. Particularly increasing trends of anti-racism as an arm of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion [EDI] Industrial Complex, we must think about the people that work in the broad equality, charity, and community sectors accepting empire medals undermining the ethos of equality for all. Meanwhile, universities pontificate about decolonisation and advancing equality (just boxticking), while celebrating OBEs, MBEs, CBEs — as tweeted by activist Penny Dinh.

Photo by Karl Callwood on Unsplash

This appears as words like ‘nuanced’ and ‘personal’ are used to beat us over the head with when we criticise ‘activists’ colonised by their OBEdience to the state. Black awardees are then designated as mouthpieces of Black communities. Over the past few years, it has been disappointing to see many Black and Brown ‘activists’ enter the establishment when in all reality we need not be ‘diversifying’ those halls of imperialist white supremacist cis-heteropatriarchal power, but questioning the legitimacy of the cage.

In the Caribbean, the year 2022 started with anti-colonial backlash to royal tours of the islands. This was followed by Barbados removing the late Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State, with other Caribbean islands now wanting to follow suit. Meanwhile, in Britain money was pumped into the Jubilee and Commonwealth Games, followed by the Queen’s expensive state funeral amid the Cost of Capitalism (dubbed Living) Crisis — where many cannot afford to live, thus dying from state-imposed social murder.

The term ‘social murder’ was first coined by nineteenth-century historian, philosopher and political theorist Friedrich Engels. He used it to describe the early deaths that working class people faced due to sociopolitical and economic violence. And little has changed since, as the working-class continue to be killed by the political choices of the powerful, including austerity and the hostile environment. Yet, some of the biggest names in social and political activism are also knights/dames, OBEs and so on — having taken entry into the colonial establishment. Imperial warts and all.

In the wider social context, when we criticise those who are positioned as the public heads of the broadly defined social justice movements, we are told acceptance of a medal is a ‘nuanced’ or ‘personal’ decision — in essence as a form of silencing the naysayers — described in one instance as “slings and arrows.” Yet, these decisions impact everybody so are they really that personal? Moreover, 2022 was also important in presenting how public spaces were allocated to royal remembrance. This shows how our spaces belong to what Cheryl Harris writes about as “whiteness as property.”

For example, in Northampton the local town council commissioned a mural of Charles and the late Queen without any consideration that not everybody wants to see this on a day-to-day. The assumption that everybody is a royalist also sat in the gaslighting, experienced by many Black and Brown people during the Jubilee weekender last summer.

As Nadine White wrote for The Independent:

“As a Black woman descended from enslaved African people, the likes of whom were branded with hot irons bearing the initials of royal family members, the past four days of wall-to-wall, uncritical responses to the jubilee have been a gaslighting experience” — The Independent

‘Uncommon Wealth’

This year, like every year, Twitter was a good place to see more Black people expressing their pride when offered an empire medal in the bi-annual hurrah! For many of us, this system of ‘merit’ is measured by how well we are accepted by white people (but specifically those with greenlight power). In my experience, I observe this in how proximity to whiteness is celebrated.

Or as the late bell hooks says

“We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is so normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.”

The violent backlash against activists when we criticised the monarchy amid the Jubilee is testament to a normalised British culture of colonial nostalgia. This continues to persist in offering safety and comfort to racists and colonisers while leaving the victims high and dry. One such example is how the British public voted Winston Churchill as the Greatest Briton in a 2002 BBC poll — and later on, the establishent put his face on the £5-note while he was complicit in some of the worst violations of human rights.

Historian Shasi Tharoor writes:

“… by the time [The Bengal Famine] ended, nearly 4 million … starved to death … Nothing can excuse the odious behaviour of Winston Churchill, who deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers …‘The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious’ than that of ‘sturdy Greeks’, he argued. Grain for the Tommies, bread for home consumption in Britain (27 million tonnes of imported grains, a wildly excessive amount), and generous buffer stocks in Europe (for yet-to be-liberated Greeks and Yugoslavs) were [his] priorities, not the life or death of his Indian subjects. When reminded of the suffering of his victims his response was typically Churchillian: The famine was their own fault, he said, for ‘breeding like rabbits’ . When officers of conscience pointed out in a telegram to the prime minister the scale of the tragedy caused by his decisions, Churchill’s only reaction was to ask peevishly: ‘why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’”

Meanwhile, a 2014 YouGov survey found 59% of people polled thought the British Empire was a source of pride. Post-Brexit and now with the Nationality and Borders Act, has anything changed? So, how can to be state-validated by the Honours System, also be respectable?

Radical psychologist Guilaine Kinouani in Living While Black describes that whilst ‘respectability’ may provide some escape (at least temporarily) and possibly more money and conditional access to power structures, “they produce white supremacy and such breed further shame and self-alienation.” Kinouani continues to say how self-contempt, disdain and scorn were intentional byproducts of colonialism in order to “fortify whiteness and reduce resistance.” This manifests itself in many ways.

For example, a royal visit in December 2022 to a restaurant saw a Black woman falling to her knees with excitement. This video went viral and it must be said that this is not anomaly, as I see many Black people — especially of my parents’ generation (late 60s/early 70s kids) and the elder Windrush — supporting anti-racism, but finding it more challenging when it comes to condeming the monarchy as an imperialistic construct. This includes the numbers of Black ‘activists’ that hold space for Empire after their name, whilst being on some of the biggest social justice platforms.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Psyciatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks also discusses this idea of internalised whiteness, whilst in more recent years poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan takes on the politics of respectability in her 2019 poetry collection Postcolonial Banter. Liberation is not bloodless and the acceptance of these Honours by Black and Brown ‘activists’ often comes attached to ideas of changing things from within. Everyday connotations of these awards do come attached to ideas of ‘respectability’ but colonialism as a social discourse of violence is not respectable. That summer where many of us were participating in forms of organising, I found it conflicting that most of the dominant voices were also empire Honours recipients.

Of course, none of us are without hypocrisies in our own lives — but this is something incredibly overt, violent, and undermines much of the needed work they and others do. As these honourifics are continuing remnants of the British Empire, that image of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck is mirrored in the insignia on the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George — embodying how global western nations view countries they once colonised — all through white supremacy as a master signifier.

Laying Down with Dogs

Following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, it has been intriguing to observe many that spoke out that summer also then accepted state honours afterwards. The summer of 2021 saw Prishita Maheswari-Aplin’s excellent critique of this in the context of so-called ‘activists’ and ‘anti-imperialists’ taking entry into the establishment. In the Gal-Dem article, they write “From singer Ms Dynamite to author Bernardine Evaristo, musician MIA, and most recently Amika George — founder of the Free Periods campaign — this pattern has been repeated countless times over the past decade.”

With more now pushing to be ‘anti-racist’, I wonder how this is possible when many positioned within the optics of anti-racism in dominant media are also Knights, Dames, Officers, Members, and Commanders of the British Empire. The same systems of violence that kidnapped people from the African continent; perpetuated genocides against Indigenous peoples in Australia/New Zealand and America; orchestrated the Partition of India, and killed/displaced one million Kukui people in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprisings — is the same that empowers the Honours System.

If you lay down with dogs, you will get flees — while we have been some of the biggest victims of violence pushed by the establishment, Black and Brown people are some of its proudest members — no less than in activism, equality, inclusion, and community. With the state culpable of some of the worst acts of human terror against Black and Brown communities, there is a long thread of social violence going back centuries. So, here, we must question what Black, Brown … and white ‘allies’ and ‘activists’ are thinking!

Sara Ahmed writes:

[Diversity] “often creates a happy impression; it is how an organisation appears welcoming to those who appear different by drawing on those who appear different. Diversity can appear as an invitation, an open door, translated into a tagline: minorities welcome! Come in, come in” (Ahmed, 2018: 334).

Yet the inclusion of Black and Brown people (into an imperialistic genocidal construct), not only raises issues of internalised whiteness on our part (as a byproduct of colonisation), but also how the state has weaponised diversity — showing how EDI was never about liberation if it was co-opted so easily! This is compounded by how ‘looks like me’ politics dominates over a more effective ‘structurally positioned like me.’

This abundance of Black and Brown empire recipients as the faces of ‘racism media’ will haunt us in the years to come. In the present, however, I often feel like a pariah among my own. We live in a society that still sees more value in state validation than recognosing our communities. Whilst the racist incidents at Buckingham Palace mount, should we be surprised that an imperialistic institution is racist? We can’t EDI or anti-racism violence out of the monarchy — decolonisation/abolition would be more effective, and herein sits the dilemma that anti-racism and decolonisation are not the same — but that is another conversation.

In conversation with students and non/academics about empire and the violence of the British state, I am always interested to see how many white people distance themselves from violence as if this does not effect them too. They present themselves as if white people have less of a reason than Black and Brown people to reject Empire medals. It comes back to the dominant narrative that the violence of the monarchy and governments only impact those racialised outside of whiteness which is not true.

One only need to look at the tweets published by white Irish people in the discourse on colonialism surrounding the funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth II. In the nineteenth century, activist Maud Gonne reportedly dubbed Victoria as “The Famine Queen.” The Irish Potato Famine also known as ‘The Great Hunger’ and Gorta Mór is one of the darkest parts of Irish history which oversaw one million killed, further to another million migrate into the United States as what today we would call asylum seekers or refugees — fleeing violence, in this case that of the British Empire.

However, in What White People Can Do Next, sociologist Emma Dabiri talks about how regardless of Ireland’s history as a colonial possession of Britain, it is also a country that “came to be racialised as “white” in the Americas, quite unlike the peoples of other subjugated territories.”

“Geographical location is important … to access the privileges of white supremacy, the millions of Irish who flooded into the US from the 1840s onward distinguished themselves from the black people who had already been there for centuries” — Emma Dabiri

While at one time white Irish people may not have been seen as culturally white in ‘dominant white culture’, they did “become white” as discussed in Noel Ignatiev’s 1995 book How the Irish Became White. The people who have been viewed as white changes across geography and history as we further saw recently with Ukraine debated earlier in 2022 — as discussed by political scientist Olena Lyubchenko. The acceptance of Ukraine into ‘fortress Europe’ reminds us that who is seen as white can change.

As a white nation, Ireland shows that recent critiques of colonialism at the monarchy are not just about Black and Brown people, so there is space for solidarity and kinship.

Actor Michael Sheen in 2017 gave up his OBE so he could openly criticise the Royal Family without being labelled a hypocrite. He gave it up after doing research for his Raymond Williams lecture. Learning about his native Welsh history, he saw he could not both do this lecture and have the medal. In conversation with journalist Owen Jones, he talks about how in 2018 there was push to rename the Second Severn Crossing — the ‘Prince of Wales Bridge’ — later receiving a petition garnering 30,000+ signatures.

The reasons why some reject Honours are in many cases much ado with the British Empire, but the violence of the monarchy to its neighbours far predates what is defined in the colonial project. We tread the paths our ancestors walked, history holds power and it has an enduring legacy. So, considering state violence (including Crown and Government), England’s neighbours are part of that story. Even if one was to remove the word ‘empire’, the fact these medals come from the state is still a problem.

Gina Martin was offered an OBE in 2020 for her political activism, but rejected it for its colonial links

In November 2020, activist Gina Martin declined an OBE concerned about its ties to oppression and the British Empire. She was being honoured for her activist work, namely the anti-upskirting campaign that lead to the construction of the Voyerusim (Offences) Act 2019. Over the years, many have declined Honours — from Ken Loach and Nigella Lawson to Benjamin Zephaniah and Howard Gayle. Today, when ethnic minorities more generally accept or decline these awards, it is deeply politicised.

Britain’s ‘see-it-to-be-it’ role model-culture has us in a chokehold, and large portions of Black people in the public eye positioned as role models are Honours recipients. It comes back to positionality, and can Honours recipients with empire after their name be role models to young people that want to go into social justice advocacy? For example, I was deeply concerned when Lewis Hamilton accepted a knighthood within months of supporting Black Lives Matter (he already had an MBE).

His family like mine come from the Caribbean island of Grenada attached to histories of enslavement. Yet, British Empire sits after his name while trying to do the work.

In equalities, I like to tell myself Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling were victims of their MBEs, with possible pressure from family to accept at such a young age. Would Rashford especially have had to campaign for free school meal vouchers for children, had it not been for the Government’s violent Victorian-esque choices and ideologies? The responses I recieve to my dislike of the Honours System is that ‘it allows change from within.’ But I wonder, how can you put a fire out from inside the house?

Post-2020, as an artist I have begun to question the Black face of activism in the creative industries — one much with an establishment aesthetic. Despite the success of BBC’s Small Axe, Steve McQueen has two Honours — a knighthood and a CBE. During the summer of 2020, we saw David Olusoga OBE deliver a brilliant MacTaggart lecture on race and representation in the media, and a video on white privilege by John Amaechi OBE went viral.

Some of the names being given huge platforms in media, arts and culture are empire medal recipients. Do they have to take these medals to do things, or are there deeper processes in play?

Empireland

It must have been during one of the COVID-19 lockdown that I saw a tweet by author Jeffrey Boakye talking about public amnesia to state-sanctioned Operation Legacy. This was a state-disposal of colonial files between the 1950s and 1970s to stop them falling into their hands of those now ‘previously colonised’ countries. People are rejecting Honouros but clearly it is not enough — while public tolerance for the monarchy continues. So, why do people take these Honours in droves? And really, I do not know.

Nonetheless, historic coverups of imperial crimes acts as bedrock for current amnesia, including not just the colonial Honours System but public celebration and ambivalence to the Jubilee. Benjamin Zephaniah’s rejection of an OBE continues to be iconic — but this culture of measuring our value in proximity to whiteness continues not only through these state merits (the extreme end of this thinking), but also in the little things embedded in the more commonly known ‘imposter syndrome.’

Those ‘honoured’ are given medals for many legitimate achievements, but it continues to provoke me to question how these medals go to individuals which then curates a culture of individualism. The African proverb goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. These children become adults who then get tapped for state rewards. The forces in play that make so-called ‘exceptional’ people are not part of the narrative with Honours, spotlighting the ‘me’ in individualism over communalism. Thus so-called ‘activists’ and ‘anti-imperialists’ continue to accept empire medals from the state, I often feel a little hopeless on this small island.

Their acceptance makes things even more difficult for the rest of us — acceptance becomes the dominant culture, so those of us who reject are framed as militant, problematic or confrontational.

In 2022, I watched a film called Farha situated around the formation of Israel due to the Israeli state’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. What’s currently happening in Israel (settler colonialism) continues to be legitimised every time somebody accepts a colonial Honour. This also intersects with allegations of corruption in the Honours admissions process — especially in the two years since the start of the pandemic which has been punctuated by politicians mired in political scandal.

As an artist, I sit in author Chinua Achebe’s ethos that an artist is also a citizen. With more of us having conversations about things like climate justice, disability rights, and anti-racism — freedom will not reign while individuals continue to socioculturally invest in state validation.

This not only means divesting support from Honours, but declining royal invites to their palaces. In my community, I see social media posts from charities and other organisations about their palace invites to tea!

There comes a point where we must take responsibility and own up to the fact we have been psychologically bamboozled by centuries of state-sanctioned psychological conditioning. Through media and what Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony, we can see how celebrations of the monarchy then also whitewash their victims out of it — including the Black and Brown people in the Global South. Stuart Hall’s work on mass media and ideology is also worth looking into here as well.

Universities will then tell students and staff how we ought to do equality, then in the same breath celebrate the monarchy supporting the bi-annual Honours announcements. All the questions that meander through social justice — i.e patriarchy, white supremacy, cis-heteronormativity culture — at some point permeate Crown and government. And until we start asking critical questions, deference will be the disease that maintains the rot.

End

Colonial honours presented through the violent optics of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion [EDI] agenda is whiteness of a different colour. The state continues to treat Black lives as subhuman — the police, government, the monarchy and so on. As a new generation rises, some of us reproduce intergenerational cycles of plotting our worth to white people. Yet, many of us are breaking these inherited toxic patterns of behaviour. Now, there is a multiracial establishment quaking in fear of zillennials unwilling to settle.

Wi run tings, tings nuh run wi!

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Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Award-Winning Educator | Creative | Public Historian-Sociologist | Speaks: Race, Neurodiversity, Film + TV, Black British History + more | #Autistic #Dyspraxic