by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown | The Independent ("Comment"; p. 17) | December 1, 2003
Mingled with self contempt, I had begun to feel that to hang on to my MBE would be dishonourable. I could never again respect myself
Damn Benjamin Zephaniah. I blame and thank him for this epiphany. On Thursday the poet, sweet and modest, vegan, always gentle, caused a nationwide eruption by announcing that he was refusing an OBE and then explained in a blistering article why he despised the honours system, this Government and the monarchy. Zephaniah beamed a mercilessly bright light on the whole secretive and dubious system and the delusions which went with it. There was no escape; no patter that could diminish the force of his choice even though some of his arguments were questionable and were indeed questioned by decent black and Asian people who felt good and right about accepting their OBEs and MBEs and CBEs.
As a recipient of an MBE, I was thrown into chaos. Mingled with self contempt, I began to feel that to hang on to the honour would be so dishonourable I could never again respect myself. After much too much internal turmoil, testing introspection, tortuous arguments, I have today made the decision to return the medal which will make me sink very low, I know, in the estimation of many, even friends, because there is little kudos in giving back something they feel I should never have accepted in the first place. This is rank hypocrisy, the worst of all positions, and I will have to weather the attacks private and public, in part because I deserve them. No getting away from that.
I also expect unfair attacks. I will be charged with being discourteous and manipulative, publicity seeking, for having no consistency, much worse I am sure. The wolves are already howling outside Zephaniah's door. They accuse him of being "graceless and pompous" (that was Cristina Odone - the Catholic Queen whose tedious lectures on morality have not always been followed in her own life), being an ex-burglar and of criminal ingratitude (various columnists). Even Trevor Phillips has asked the poet to live in the "real" world.
When the formal letter about an MBE first arrived in 2001, I threw it into the bin. (I later did the same with the invitations to various palace events during the Jubilee.) Those I love most thought I should accept the honour because of what it would mean to my mother and because this was my country showing me recognition after a long, hard journey, still always infinitely longer and harder if you are black or Asian. Both reasons were sound and still stand.
Phillips has poignantly described the importance of such symbols for older generation immigrants who had to struggle against so many odds and barriers. Until this MBE, Jena, my mother, was constantly fearful that we would be deported from this country because I am so strident a dissenter. What happened in Uganda still affects Asians. Her panicky heart settled after she saw and touched the rather beautiful piece in its satin folds.
In Australia and New Zealand, citizens are honoured without inappropriate echoes of a disputed past. In France the state recognises the good and the great. We are still tied up with the emblems of Empire and monarchy but the meaning is the same as in these countries. And you don't enter the establishment if you accept a medal - an accusation made against me by individuals I have been close to. In truth, some people who have refused the offer are more within the inner circles than I will ever be. Unlike me, they are seen at Chequers, or attending cosy soirees plotting the third term. Finally, it is important to remember that the little people are often in the lists which come out - nurses, community activists, dinner ladies - for whom such recognition is priceless and they can hardly be said to be members of the establishment.
These were the original, credible reasons why I said yes. But Zephaniah's words still came as a wake-up slap. My current position is not morally sustainable. It is unethical and (a confusing one this) it isn't fair to the monarchy or government. As the sordid details of royal life creep out, after the Burrell revelations and the millions of pounds of tax revenue spent by Charles on refurbishing Clarence House, I am growing so opposed to this institution and the second-rate members of the family that they have the right to expect me to do the decent thing and give back their award.
Then there are the complicated questions about Empire. Unlike Zephaniah, I don't think colonialism, slavery, imperialism were evils entirely propagated by the English. All these projects depended on co-operation from the "natives". They led to us being here and claiming this country as our own, to the point of a stirring and volatile love.
Our collective history needs to be debated and told more honestly. It is indisputable that we have not even begun the painful process of addressing the generational damage suffered by subject countries and the economic base which was built by Britain through its domination and exploitation of these nations.
We Commonwealth immigrants are always asked to be grateful that we were "allowed" to be here. Yes, sure, I'll be humbly grateful if the nation also expresses its undying thanks to the ruled children of the Empire whose blood and land helped to enrich and empower Britain. It is troubling to observe just how deep and enduring are the impulses which were borne out of that history, how so many indigenous Britons still believe they are always the best. And we encourage this sickness by promoting the old delusions of grandeur and greatness of Empire in our national awards system.
But there is a far more compelling reason why I must reject my own MBE. New Labour brutalises asylum-seekers, has no respect for the precious legal traditions so long rooted in this country and tramples on best principles. It colludes with the illegal and cruel treatment of hundreds of Guantanamo Bay detainees. Do I want to be associated in any way with this lot?
This Prime Minister loves his empires. In his victory speech at the Labour Party conference in 1997, he proclaimed proudly that this country once had the biggest empire in the world. Now he is committed to a new, even more loathsome empire, and is eager to join Bush and the neo-cons to reoccupy countries and steal their resources. How can I carry on being a member of the British Empire in the face of this new assault on the right of nations, however poor, to decide for themselves on their destinies?
So that's it then. The thing will be packed off today. Four things remain to do: 1) must tell mother, slowly, and find ways to console her; 2) ditto my in-laws who were so proud of this; 3) reassure my daughter that her friends and their parents will not think her mother is mad, bad and dangerous; 4) solve the dispatch problem.
What is the right way to go about returning an MBE? A motor bike courier with a package addressed to The Queen, Buckingham Palace, or climb up the the palace gates and hang up a banner before dropping the MBE over the other side. Or perhaps I should send it to 10 Downing Street via the Royal Mail with a savage letter to Blair, now that he says he is so interested in the views of his public?
** Rasta poet publicly rejects his OBE (The Guardian, November 27 2003)
**Egyptian Novelist Sonallah Ibrahim rejects an award from the Egyptian Government (Profile in Al-Ahram Weekly, October 30, 2003)