Empire honour titles offensive and divisive, says Labour education secretary

British empire honour titles are “divisive” and “offensive”, according to Labour’s shadow education secretary.

Kate Green, who was made an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of her charitable work in the 2005 New Year Honours list, said there was no justification for “branding” the British system in colonial terms and has called for reform.

Many non-white people have turned down honours because of its association with the British empire and its history of slavery, including poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who rejected an OBE in 2003.

Other notable people of colour to reject honours include spoken word artist George The Poet and Liverpool’s first black footballer Howard Gayle.

Despite criticising the “hurtful” use of the term “empire”, Ms Green defended accepting her honour – an appointment made before she became an MP in 2010 – in an interview with BBC podcast Political Thinking.

The Opposition front bench spokeswoman said it “thrilled” her father to see her recognised and argued that those who are singled out for their work to their community and country should be able to enjoy the “huge pleasure that it gives to so many people”.

Ms Green, asked if the honour should continue to be called Order of the British Empire, said: ‘No … it’s really the wrong language – it’s divisive, it’s offensive and hurtful to people.

“One of the things I’ve been looking at a lot in recent weeks is the black curriculum campaign and decolonising our history and the whole curriculum.

OBE empire
OBE empire

“You can’t excuse or justify that branding but actually it’s deeper than that.

“I know many efforts have been made to democratise and open up that honours system but it’s still pretty hierarchical of who gets what. There’s a lot more reform that’s needed.”

The honours system has been criticised for being elitist over the lack of diversity among the higher ranks, with campaigners petitioning for the word “empire” to be dropped from the titles.

This year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, published in October after being postponed from June to allow nominations for people playing crucial roles during the coronavirus pandemic, was the most diverse to date with 13% from a minority ethnic background.

It represented a slight increase on the previous highest – 12% in the New Year honours in 2019.

The criticism comes after the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a debate over UK statues and street names that commemorate those who profited from the transatlantic slave trade.