Simon Blake: Why the Excellence Not Empire Campaign wants to build momentum

27 Oct 2022 Voices

Chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, Simon Blake OBE, explains why the Excellence Not Empire Campaign was set up, and calls for civil society leaders to join in. 

Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) medal

Wikimedia Commons, by ChrisO

I and many others who have been bestowed an honour for our work in civil society have sat with an uncomfortable tension – the delight of recognition for our social purpose, our organisation and our missions which are often focused on marginalised or under-represented people or issues; the validation and value that brings to our work and the people we work with, vis a vis the honours being awarded in the name of Empire.

For some there are two options: either accept it and shut up, or refuse it (privately or publicly). But for some of us, including myself, neither of those worked. When I was honoured I wanted my organisation’s work on sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion, HIV and LGBT rights to be recognised by an honours system, yet it still sat uncomfortably.

The campaign was founded in 2020. I was in a virtual room with civil society chief executives talking about racial justice. There were others in the room who I knew had been bestowed with an honour and I kept wondering if they felt the same unease that I did having an honour awarded in the name of Empire, as we talked about dismantling systemic racism across civil society. They and many others did feel uneasy at this, and initially we wrote a letter to the Times.

We found there was massive support for a simple change from Empire to Excellence. Some want to go further, by either abolishing the honours system or the monarchy, but this campaign is clear, we just want to cut ties with our colonial past so that we have an honours system we can all be unequivocally proud of.

The best approach is to use the word 'excellence’

Fellow campaign supporter, Sufina Ahmad, director of John Ellerman Foundation, says the use of the word Empire left her feeling “uneasy, anxious and sad”.
She says the purpose of the honours system is to recognise, embrace and celebrate achievement, for you as an individual, but more importantly for the causes and interests you care about. However, “the word Empire at best distracts from this purpose, and at worst contradicts it completely. Empire conjures up a myriad of mixed feelings. Surely then the best approach is to use the word 'excellence'”. 
Arvinda Gohil, chief executive at Central YMCA, also questioned and nearly refused to accept her OBE, “purely and simply because of the word Empire”. 

“It neither describes our place in the world today, nor recognises the road travelled in creating a sense of belonging for all who now make up Britain.”

‘We want people to step forward and support this campaign’

We have a new King, a new prime minister and a growing understanding of structural racism and the enduring legacy of colonialism, and a civil society that must lead the way in driving social change on this issue. 

We want to build momentum. We know there are thousands of people from all parts of civil society who have been honoured, but we don’t know who they are. We want people to step forward and support this campaign – we need their names, we need their skills, time and money to build campaign moments.

Our colonial past is a shameful one. We have to face that with honesty and integrity. That is why the honours system – if it exists – must break any connection to the Empire. A simple switch from Empire to Excellence can and must happen so that people can accept the honour with pride.
While not life-changing in the way some campaigns may be, it is an important campaign which could create totemic change for racial justice which civil society must lead the charge on. I am proud to be part of this #ExcellenceNotEmpire campaign pushing for a simple change that would mean the honours system is truly honourable.
Other supporters of the campaign include Ndidi Okezie, chief executive of UK Youth, Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, and Fozia Irfan, director of children and young people at Children in Need.
If you have received an honour for your work in civil society, and wish to support this small but powerful change to our honours system, please let us know. We will only achieve this vital change towards racial justice and inclusion if more of us speak out. Please do so today by emailing [email protected] or sign up via the website.

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