In the age of celebrity, what do Ed Sheeran, Vivienne Westwood, David Beckham and Helen Mirren all have in common? No, it’s not that they all have estimated net worths of at least $50 million (although, they do). Despite their varied professions, these individuals share one very specific career highlight: they have all accepted Orders of the British Empire, more commonly known by us regular folks as an OBE. Or MBE’s, CBE’s or DBE’s, depending on your ranking. Try not to feel too nauseous as we wade through this choppy sea of acronyms.
Since 1917, Orders of the British Empire have long been embedded in the fabric of our society, with each year nominations rolling out to a new assortment of athletes, philanthropists, authors and entertainers. Whilst OBE’s have existed in the United Kingdom for over a century, for perhaps the first time since its conception, 2020 saw this prestigious title’s meme-ification, thanks to Series 20 of I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here on ITV. In the first episode of the series, Paralympian Hollie Arnold faced the brunt of Twitter’s mockery quicker than you can say Witchetty Grub when she repeatedly introduced herself to fellow campmates as “Hollie Arnold, MBE”. It soon became a running joke each time the celebrity name-dropped those three magic letters following her name.
As was made quite clear by Hollie again and again (and again), for many public figures in Britain, receiving a nomination for an OBE is the very pinnacle of their careers. After her acceptance of her CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 2017, everyone’s favourite millionaire Twitter troll J.K. Rowling expressed that she “was deeply honoured and proud”. Likewise, when Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch received the same nomination, he stated that "It's a unique occasion and I feel very privileged to be here and flattered to be recognised in this way.”
"If Ed Sheeran wants to pretend to be fellow-ginger, Prince Harry, for the day by shaking hands with the world’s highest-ranking granny, then let the man live. It’s not hurting anyone."
And why shouldn't they be? After all, these celebrities have reached the very heights of their careers and have undoubtably worked incredibly hard to be recognised by the heads of our country. If Ed Sheeran wants to pretend to be fellow-ginger, Prince Harry, for the day by shaking hands with the world’s highest-ranking granny, then let the man live. It’s not hurting anyone.
And yet… In November of last year, author and social activist Gina Martin took to Instagram to share with her followers that she had politely declined her nomination, by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for Officer for the Order of the British Empire, announcing that “From now on, you can call me Gina Martin NoBE”.
Now, you may have heard Gina’s name before. In 2019, Gina successfully campaigned to ban up-skirting in the UK after a man took an invasive photo of her underwear at a festival two years prior, yet failed to face any legal repercussions. Her heart-wrenching journey into direct activism began shortly after. Since her bill was passed, Gina has become a true force to be reckoned with, not only in finding her voice, but by uplifting the voices of those who struggle to be heard.
Why then did this young and powerful activist decline the national honour of receiving an OBE? Gina joins legend David Bowie, as well as John Cleese, Nigella Lawson and Danny Boyle in passing on this piece of noble pie. In the statement uploaded to her social media, Gina wrote, “It is my belief that it would be deeply hypercritical of me to accept this honour while continuing to be vocal about my commitment to anti-racism and understanding the deep and unsettling race issues the British Empire has built into the foundation of our country and many others”.
She has a point. Despite 43% of the British public believing that the Empire was a positive thing, the ever-celebrated British Empire was ultimately a direct cause of famines in India, Boer concentration camps and the irreparable damage of colonialism. Whilst most of what we were taught in schools were whitewashed accounts of newfound lands and the trade of exotic goods, much of what we know of the British Empire is arguably through rose-tinted glasses and this is no less true of the OBE’s which continue to be held in such high-esteem every single year.
"Perhaps we as a nation need to take a step back and realise that patriotism doesn’t have to mean blind idolisation of a romanticised history, but can be shown through an acceptance of a problematic past and a honouring of how far we’ve come since."
In a country that is as patriotic as ours, there may well be millions who struggle with the idea that the impact of the British Empire wasn’t always so great. Britain has had an immensely troubled past which may not sit well with a large potion of society, like Gina. Perhaps we as a nation need to take a step back and realise that patriotism doesn’t have to mean blind idolisation of a romanticised history, but can be shown through an acceptance of a problematic past and a honouring of how far we’ve come since. In this vein, perhaps then we don’t need OBE’s or MBE’s to mark pivotal moments in our careers. In the 21st century we should be able to look back on our country’s timeline through a critical lens and move away from a past which caused so much pain. We don’t need to be ashamed of Britain’s present to grow from its past, without being pinned as a so-called snowflake, a renaming of the Orders of the British Empire, even to a title that focuses more-so on the Common Wealth would perhaps be a better fit for our rich multicultural society.
So, whether you'd prefer an OBE like Becks or a NoBE like Gina, I think we can celebrate success in our careers and long for national recognition, whilst still recognising that perhaps Orders of the Common Wealth might be a more suitable new title of honour. There must be a way of praising the most deserving in society, whilst acknowledging that the British Empire is no longer a history for which to be celebrated.