The Order of the British Empire (OBE) was created on 4 June 1917. Its motto was “For God and the Empire”. The year of its foundation was not coincidental — it was very much a royal response to the pressures of total war, industrial unrest and revolution.
King George V was very worried that the monarchy was under threat — something dramatic had to be done to attach “ordinary” people to a system that was founded on privilege.
According to George V’s biographer, Kenneth Rose, the man who came up with the idea was Lord Esher, a very influential Liberal politician, who had been warning the king of the danger posed by the trade unions and the Labour Party for years.
During the great 1912 miners’ strike he had told the king that the situation was reminiscent of 1848 and that something had to be done to tie the working class and its representatives to the monarchy. The war, together with revolution in Russia resulting in the overthrow of George V’s cousin, the Tsar, pressed the point home.
Esher is a very interesting figure, someone who stayed in the background, although he had considerable influence at court, within the military and at Westminster. He was also a paedophile. This was widely known in upper class circles at the time, but only became public knowledge when revealed by his first biographer, James Lees-Milne, in the 1980s.
Lees-Milne was much criticised at the time for exposing the upper class’s “dirty laundry” and Esher’s most recent biographer remains silent on the issue.
When Esher’s close friend Lewis Harcourt, a senior Liberal politician and former government minister, attempted to rape the illegitimate 12 year old son of the previous king, Edward VII, Esher was part of the cover-up.
The boy’s mother demanded action and Harcourt did the decent thing and committed suicide. Esher was charged with removing his extensive collection of child pornography.
Not only was knowledge of the attempted rape suppressed, but so, for many years, was the very fact that Harcourt had killed himself.
Was there an upper class paedophile ring with court connections? The evidence is not there, but then it wouldn’t be.
During the time Lloyd George was prime minister some 25,000 people received the OBE. The historian of the Order, Peter Galloway, insists that it was not sold in the way that peerages and knighthoods were then (and indeed still are today), but his evidence seems to consist of little more than the fact that no one would have been prepared to actually pay for it.
Almost from the start the OBE was ridiculed as the “Order of Bloody Everyone”, the “Order of the Bad Egg” and as being awarded for “Other Buggers’ Efforts”. Indeed, the honour became a popular music hall joke with George Robey appearing on stage in his OBE trousers!
To be fair, it was sometimes awarded to people who had suffered industrial accidents; for example, Margaret Burdett‑Coutts got it for losing a finger in a munitions factory, although this seems to have been more to do with a middle class volunteer being compensated for suffering a working class injury.
But did it work? Certainly at the time, despite the ridicule, trade union officials fell over themselves for any recognition for their support for the war effort and refusal to defend the pay and conditions of their members. OBE after the name of any union officer is very much a mark of shame.
In the longer term it has turned the award of honours into a popular jamboree, with the little people being thrown crumbs, keeping them happy, while the multimillionaires continue to buy their peerages.
George V did not just rely on the honours system, however. As is well known the royal family abandoned their unfortunate German name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which was a serious embarrassment.
Even Lloyd George often referred to the king, who he regarded as pretty stupid even for a royal, as “my little German friend”. The king and his courtiers considered a number of alternatives, among them Lancaster, Plantagenet, York, Fitzroy, Tudor-Stewart, and even England, before settling on Windsor.
More importantly, once again at Esher’s prompting, the king set about cultivating Labour politicians and trade union leaders.
When two former Marxists, trade union militants and now Labour MPs, Will Thorne and James O’Grady, visited Petrograd in the summer of 1917 in order to urge Russian workers to continue supporting the war, the king asked to see them on their return.
They were, of course, deeply honoured. Thorne assured a relieved king that there would never be a revolution in Britain although there would have to be reform.
O’Grady went on to become Governor of Tasmania and later the Falklands, acquiring a knighthood in the process.
Poor Thorne, the onetime comrade of Eleanor Marx, had to be content with a mere CBE (Commander of the British Empire). Both men remained committed to the emancipation of the working class, but one at a time with them first!
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