The Order of the British Empire after the British Empire

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3 Scopus citations


The British government created the Order of the British Empire in 1917. In theory, the new order provided a unified trans-imperial system for marking both social status and the relative value of service to the state. It also borrowed from a late nineteenth century technology of imperial management, refined in India, through which the crown promised status and recognition to colonial elites and professional classes in exchange for a symbolic demonstration of their loyalty. From the 1960s, however, politicians and administrators in Britain downplayed the imperial character of this order. As governments of former colonies adopted national orders it was transformed into an almost purely domestic honour with a focus on local service. This essay examines the sometimes contradictory process by which the name survived even as the empire faded. It argues that from the 1960s the British honours system was simultaneously nostalgic and forgetful of empire. This is most evident in the fact that immigrants from the former empire were now celebrated as British citizens through an honour that retained the language and imagery of empire. Such people were asked to buy in to a system that was created in and named for the empire in order to be included as part of the nation. For some, this was a good deal. Others, most famously poet Benjamin Zephaniah, refused to "sell out."

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)509-532
Number of pages24
JournalCanadian Journal of History
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Benjamin Zephaniah
  • Britain
  • British Empire
  • Conservative pluralism
  • Decolonization
  • Honours system
  • Imperial history
  • New commonwealth migration
  • Prince philip

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History


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