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The British Empire Medal Strikes Back

Posted: 16/06/2012 00:00

The Prime Minister David Cameron has revived the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service... or, to the common man, the British Empire Medal. Although it has always been awarded in other Commonwealth countries, former premier John Major decided to scrap it during his tenure at Downing Street on the basis that it was helping fuel a class-riddled society. (This was the man who then accepted a knighthood and then membership into the most prestigious of clubs: the Order of the Garter!)

There was much controversy over the British Empire Medal before Major scrapped it as it was seen by some to be not as prestigious as MBEs and the like - it was viewed as a 'you're good but not that good' kind of honour. Maybe so, although it is still an honour and only a minority of people in the country receives an accolade awarded by the State so recipients shouldn't feel too hard-done-by.

Recipients are allowed to include the letters BEM after their name, just as those who receive the OBE or CBE can have said letters.

The other controversy is of course the word 'Empire' and some take umbrage at the historical implications that word provokes. Well, what ninnies! The better-known MBEs, OBEs etc are part of the 'Order of the British Empire' and no one has really had much of a problem with those in the past.

Whether the Prime Minister changes how the BEM is awarded remains to be seen. It used to be awarded not by The Queen, the Prince of Wales, or the Princess Royal but by the Lord Lieutenant (pronounced 'left-tenant' by we Brits) of the recipient's county. I would imagine that it will remain this way as having attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace myself (not to be honoured - that will come, though, I'm sure) they go on for long enough as it is and don't need to be made any longer.

I think it probably is time to re-introduce the award - the Jubilee year being a good enough excuse as any. Indeed, I would suggest that we also use this juncture to re-evaluate who is awarded honours (of any variety). Since 'Call Me Tony' arrived into power in 1997 celebrities and people of higher-profile have much more heavily dominated the twice-yearly honours list.

When I attended the investiture in 1996 there was only one person of 'note' at the ceremony whereas the others were all those who had not received millions of pounds for their work but instead just quietly and without song and dance got on with serving their community or organisation. (Incidentally, the person of 'note' at the ceremony was hardly of much note either as I can't remember who it was!)

Perhaps it is now time to re-consider the Honours system in general. Not to scrap it - good gracious, no! - but to think carefully about to whom we hand out our country's accolades.

 

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