Empire: the honours system and the sins of our colonial past | the big issue

Damning evidence about British activities in Malaya and elsewhere in the empire has long been in the public domain

There was an interesting juxtaposition of stories in last week’s Observer. On one hand, the paper reported proposals to drop the term “empire” from the title of British honours (“Queen’s advisers on honours say it’s time for the end of ’empire’“, News). This was condemned by the Tory MP Oliver Heald on the grounds that “we are entitled to be proud of our history”.

On the other, we learned of the latest attempt to open an official inquiry into the notorious massacre of 24 villagers by British troops at Batang Kali in Malaya in December 1948 (“Revealed: how Britain tried to legitimise shooting of unarmed Malayan villagers“). The report “revealed” the existence of Regulation 27A, issued by the British authorities in Malaya in January 1949, which retrospectively authorised the use of lethal force to “prevent the escape from arrest”, the excuse used by the Ministry of Defence to explain the deaths at Batang Kali.

It suggested that this regulation has been “disclosed now for the first time” as a result of the opening last month of files that had been stored secretly by the British government at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. In fact, the drafting of Regulation 27A is well documented in Colonial Office files that have been available in the National Archives for many years, and is mentioned in published accounts by Huw Bennett and David French.

This is just another example of the confusion that has typified the reporting of the Hanslope Park files. The fact that the government concealed their existence for so long is a scandal; but it is not yet clear whether they will tell us much that is new. The real point, however, is that damning evidence about British activities in Malaya, Kenya and a number of other parts of the empire has been in the public domain for decades. There is no excuse for Mr Heald’s complacency.

Professor Philip Murphy


Institute of Commonwealth Studies

University of London WC1

Your article on the killing of 24 unarmed villagers by British troops at Batang Kali refers to British troops’ counter-insurgency operations against the “Chinese Malayan communists”. Colonial Britain, in the implementation of its policy of using race to divide and rule, very successfully created the myth that the Communist party of Malaya (CPM) was a Chinese organisation. While the majority of the members of the CPM were Malayans of Chinese origin, the CPM was a multiracial organisation.

The government of Malaysia has continued – especially since the early 1970s – with the use of racial politics to divide and rule. Like colonial Britain, its greatest fear is the unity of all the races in Malaysia, which is now gathering strength, as this will spell the end of its corrupt and despotic grip on the country.

Stephen Chang



The Queen’s advisers want to end the link between the empire and royal honours. Perhaps they have been influenced by people such as Benjamin Zephaniah and Patrick French, whose rejection of OBEs has been connected with their dislike of empire.

Much to my surprise, I have recently been offered an MBE. I appreciate the efforts of those unknown people who nominated me, but I have declined – albeit for reasons unconnected with the empire. First, the awards come from an unelected monarchy. Second, I believe in greater equality and titles serve to maintain social divisions.

Bob Holman


Far better to end the “honours” system in its current form and bring in an awards system for recognised achievement, beyond the control of self-serving figures and institutions that make up the establishment.

Buggins’s turn, right up to royalty, has to be seen for what it is: anachronistic in a true democracy.

Eddie Dougall

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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