Opinion Articles


Two-tier system


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For the first time in the long history of British orders of chivalry, the New Year 2014 British Crown honours list contained more women than men. The 2015 list, announced on the Queen’s Birthday, repeated this ratio of 51% women to 49% men. For the last few decades the gap between women and men in honours lists has been closing, but the committees that nominate people for honours did not achieve parity until last year. On the surface this seems like a laudable achievement on the part a system that has long struggled to reflect the complexity of individual and collective contributions to the state. But this parity is not equality. In the ‘Big Society’ the honours system differentiates between different kinds of service to the state in ways that are more, rather than less, hierarchical than ten years ago. Media reports in January 2014 focused on a few high-level honours to high-profile women, but this hid the reality that gender parity had been achieved largely through the re-invention of the British Empire Medal (BEM) in 2012 as a lower tier in the honours system. The BEM had been established in 1917 but was phased out in 1993.

Women were recognized by the same honour as men for the first time in the exclusive Order of Merit in 1902, but it was not until the creation of the Order of the British Empire in 1917 that women regularly appeared in British honours lists. This order contains five ranks: Knights/Dames Grand Cross (GBE), Knights/Dames (KBE/DBE), Commanders (CBE), Officers (OBE), and Members (MBE). The lowest two ranks, OBE and MBE, have made up the majority of honours awarded by the crown in both the British Empire and Britain since 1917. Even though women could receive the Order of the British Empire, they were a small minority in honours lists until the end of the twentieth century. This disparity was compounded by the attitudes of politicians and civil servants in the 1920s and 1930s who saw the normal role of women as, as Colonial Office official J. Lloyd described it in 1936, ‘participating in her husband’s honours’ rather than claiming it for themselves, even when they were involved in charitable work independent of the state service of their husbands.

The BEM was established at in 1917  as a working-class decoration to complement the Order of the British Empire. According to Honours in Britain, the BEM was for those who ‘do not qualify by rank for the higher awards in the Order of the British Empire’. This distinction was easiest to draw in the military, where officers received a level of the Order of the British Empire based on their rank, while enlisted men received the BEM. The latter were not formally members of the Order and thus they lacked any of its other rights, including the much-prized opportunity to meet the monarch at an investiture.

The symbolic differences between the Medal and the Order was confusing for both recipients and governments. For most of the twentieth century why people received the MBE as opposed to the BEM (as well as the acronyms themselves) was not understood, especially because both awards were, by the 1960s and 1970s, used to recognize local voluntary service. In 1993 John Major abolished the BEM and increased the number of MBE awards in an attempt to create an honours system ‘which distinguishes between forms of service not on the basis of class but on the level of contribution.’

People who would have been considered for the BEM thereafter received the MBE. The MBE was already the honour that most frequently recognized volunteers. Its incorporation of people who would previously have been given BEMs secured for the first time since the early 1920s the dominance of volunteer work in honours lists. From the mid-1990s through to today volunteers make up a majority of honours lists; previously they comprised about a third of new members in the Order of the British Empire. 

In 2012 the Coalition government reintroduced the BEM to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, explaining that the award would be for local voluntary work. For Major phasing out the BEM removed an embarrassing distinction between classes; for Cameron honours provide a way to reinforce the ‘Big society’. The Head of the Home Civil Service Bob Kerslake explained that the Honours Committee had received clear direction from Cameron that he wanted to:

reflect in the honours system commitments around the Big Society, and to recognize in a very strong way the contribution of people to the community through voluntary effort.

The reintroduction of the BEM was part of a wider shift in the honours policy that does not only recognize voluntary work but also categorizes and ranks service to the state. Cameron also established a committee to consider high-ranked awards for philanthropic donations, separately from the honours for voluntary service. In practice, this incentivizes the donation of time through the lower-rank honours while the large donations have special status in the realm of knight- and damehoods.

That the honours lists of June 2015 and January 2014 contained more women than men would have been inconceivable 30 years ago, but we should not mistake this for gender equality. Since 2012 the BEM is the only honour with a consistent majority of women (197 out of 329 in January 2014) although men and women receive OBEs and MBEs in roughly equal numbers. Gender parity is the result of larger numbers of women receiving honours at the lower end of the system. Higher-level honours, especially CBE and above, continue to have a substantial majority of men.

The reintroduction of the BEM enables the state to honour more people but it makes the system more, rather than less, hierarchical. Officially, the distinction between the lower and higher levels of the honours system is based on the scale (local and national) and duration of service. However, such distinctions are vague and in practice they reinforce a hierarchy that values the philanthropic donation of large sums of money, celebrity, and the professional eminence of a few above the voluntary donation of time and labour by the many. Men continue to predominate in this upper tier, while local voluntary service by ordinary people, many of them women, remains at the bottom of the pyramid of recognition.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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