16/06/2012 08:19 BST

Should The 'Arrogant' Word 'Empire' Be Dropped From The Honours System?

People across the UK will receive the revived British Empire Medal (BME) today, in recognition of their charity and volunteer work.

The "working class gong" award was created in 1922, but was scrapped by John Major in 1992 as the then prime minsiter thought it exacerbated class divisions,

Unlike knighthoods, OBEs and MBEs, the BME is given to its recipients by lords lieutenants - the monarch's representatives across the counties - rather than the Queen.

Major thought this was unfair and wanted to see more normal Britons receive their awards for the Queen herself.

David Cameron has decided to resurrect the honour to mark the diamond jubilee and it will reward people for charity and volunteer work as part of his 'Big Society' project.

Well deserved the awards may be, but is it really appropriate for the British government to be handing out honours with the word 'empire' in them, given it no longer has one?

When the time the Queen was crowned in 1952 the empire was already crumbling, with India and Pakistan gaining independence in 1947, and Britain's power was quickly being eclipsed by the United States and the Soviet Union.

And by the time Major scrapped the honour, arguably the only significant territory that Britain could still lay claim to was Hong Kong, which was handed back to the Chinese just five years later.

Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor, has criticised the use of the word 'empire' in honours because, as he points, out "we don't have one".

"It's a difficult position. Commander of the British Empire (CBE) is something we are in no positon to offer," he told the Commons public administration committee (PASC), which is conducting an inquiry into the honours system.

While Lord Digby Jones, a former trade minister who has a knighthood, told MPs he was often embarrassed when he had to explain to people abroad that the word 'empire' was included in honours.

"The moment you say the word 'empire' you just wish you didn't have to. At one end you get the Opium Wars, at the other the some battle for independence," he said. "All over it smacks of arrogance."

"We are going to have to shelve and dismiss the arrogance that comes of 200 years of empire, we are going to have to show the world we are damn good at what we do."

One suggestion has been to replace the word 'empire' with 'excellence'.

However it is not clear that there is an appetite for dropping the 'E'' word from the awards. Of those offered an honour only 2% turn it down. And Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, said the number that did so because of the use of the word 'Empire' was in the "very small-single numbers" .

And only one person has refused a British Empire Medal this year, and the use of the word 'empire' was not mentioned as a reason.

It is also reportedly not as easy as it sounds to simply swap the word 'empire' for something else. Richard Tilbrook, the Head of Honours and Appointments Secretariat at the Cabinet Office, told MPs that when the OBE was established, the statutes made it very clear it was to be "known forever thereafter" as the Order of the British Empire and "by no other designation".

"What that means in practice is, if you want to change the name of the order, you have to close the order and start a new one," he said.

There have also been questions as to whether it is appropriate to politicse the honours system by linking it to a government policy such as the 'Big Society.

Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins, a member of the PASC committee, told a hearing that he was uneasy as he viewed the 'Big Society' as "just a disguise for unpicking the welfare state".

But the revival of the British Empire Medal has allowed the honours system to step up its recognition of "hands-on" service to local communities and the Big Society, Sir Bob said.

He stressed that 72% of today's awards were for people involved in charity and voluntary work.

"Essentially what we are trying to do is recognise people who have made a real contribution to their communities and to society," he said.

"What the reintroduction of the BEM has done is help us extend the reach of the honours system by rewarding hands-on service to local communities."

What do you think? Should the empire be dropped from the honours system? And if so, what should replace it? Let us know in the comments section below.