Queen's Birthday Honours: The Best Reasons Why People Rejected An Honour

Reasons range from the ethical to the bizarre.

The Queen’s birthday honours list may bring joy to the hundreds of people who receive an award every year, but it’s not for everybody.

Scores of people have famously turned down an award and others have even returned them years after making a trip to the palace.

Some of the most high profile names to do so include Roald Dahl, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Steven Hawking.

And from the ethical to the downright bizarre, there are many reasons why people reject gongs - here are ten of the best:

David Bowie.
David Bowie.
PA Wire/PA Images

David Bowie turned down an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours in 2000, saying: “I seriously don’t know what it’s for.”

The music icon, who passed away in 2016, said he did not see the point in the honour.

He said: “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don’t know what it’s for.

“It’s not what I spent my life working for.”

Addressing fellow musician, Mick Jagger, accepting the honour, Bowie said: “It’s not my place to make a judgment on Jagger, it’s his decision. But it’s just not for me.”

2. George Harrison

George Harrison, Beatles rhythm guitarist.
George Harrison, Beatles rhythm guitarist.
S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Archive

In 2000 the former Beatle turned down an OBE after his band mate Paul McCartney was awarded a knighthood.

Documents revealed Harrison was put forward for the honour due to his contribution to the music industry.

But journalist Ray Connolly, who knew The Beatles, said Harrison would have been insulted at such an offer after McCartney received a knighthood three years previously.

“Whoever it was who decided to offer him the OBE and not the knighthood was extraordinarily insensitive,” he said.

“George would have felt insulted – and with very good reason.”

Every member of the Beatles was awarded an MBE in 1965, but John Lennon returned his as a peace protest.

3. JG Ballard

Novelist JG Ballard outiside his house.
Novelist JG Ballard outiside his house.
David Reed via Getty Images

Novelist James Graham ‘JG’ Ballard, a self-proclaimed republican, called the awards “ludicrous” and urged the system be “swept away”.

Explaining in 2003 why he rejected a CBE, which he was put forward for to recognise his services to literature, Ballard said he could not accept an honour awarded by the monarch.

“There’s all that bowing and scraping and mummery at the palace.

“It’s the whole climate of deference to the monarch and everything else it represents.

“They just seem to perpetuate the image of Britain as too much pomp and not enough circumstance. It’s a huge pantomime where tinsel takes the place of substance.

“A lot of these medals are orders of the British Empire, which is a bit ludicrous.

“The dreams of empire were only swept away relatively recently, in the 60s. Suddenly, we seem to have a prime minister who has delusions of a similar kind.

“It goes with the whole system of hereditary privilege and rank, which should be swept away.

“It uses snobbery and social self-consciousness to guarantee the loyalty of large numbers of citizens who should feel their loyalty is to fellow citizens and the nation as a whole. We are a deeply class-divided society.”

JG Ballard died in 2009.

4. Carla Lane

TV scriptwriter Carla Lane at her animal sanctuary in Horsted Keynes, West Sussex.
TV scriptwriter Carla Lane at her animal sanctuary in Horsted Keynes, West Sussex.
Chris Ison - PA Images via Getty Images

Carla Lane was given an OBE for services to writing in 1989 but returned it more than ten years later in an objection over animal cruelty.

In 2002 Lane returned her honour to then prime minister Tony Blair after a CBE was awarded to Brian Cass, the head of Huntingdon Life Sciences, which runs animal testing laboratories.

Blair told Lane she could have her OBE back any time she liked, but she never asked for it back.

Lane, who was a passionate animal rights activist and even set up an animal sanctuary from her home, passed away in 2016

5. Howard Gayle

Howard Gayle.
Howard Gayle.
S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Liverpool FC’s first black player turned down an MBE in 2016, saying that his “ancestors would be turning in their graves after how Empire and Colonialism had enslaved them”.

Howard Gayle, 59, was nominated for the honour for his campaign work with Show Racism the Red Card.

He wrote on his Facebook page: “This is a decision that I have had to make and there will be others who may feel different and would enjoy the attraction of being a Member of the British Empire and those 3 letters after their name, but I feel that It would be a betrayal to all of the Africans who have lost their lives, or who have suffered as a result of Empire.”

6. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
David Levenson via Getty Images

The journalist and author has described herself as “stupid once” after she allowed herself to accept an MBE, which she later returned.

Alibhai-Brown said she partly accepted the honour to please her mother before returning it and she now speaks “with the zeal of a convert”.

The journalist wrote in 2006: “I was stupid once and allowed myself to accept an MBE, partly to please my mum, who was always afraid that my big mouth would get us deported from here, as we were from Uganda.

“Then the poet Benjamin Zephaniah shamed me live on Channel 4 news, just as the Iraq war was building up and my republicanism was solidifying.

“I returned the lovely object and have had to put up with scorn ever since, some deserved.

“But I now speak with the zeal of a convert. The Honours system sucks and we should start again, devise a fair and independent new method to annually acclaim exceptional citizens for their contribution to the nation, not to overweening political parties or the semi-skilled, dysfunctional Windsors.”

7. Ken Loach

Ken Loach in the press room during the EE British Academy Film Awards in 2017.
Ken Loach in the press room during the EE British Academy Film Awards in 2017.
Doug Peters/EMPICS Entertainment

Ken Loach’s films frequently tackle social issues such as poverty, homelessness and benefits so it is perhaps no surprise the film director not only turned down an OBE in 1977 but had some rather strong words about the entire honours system.

“It’s all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest,” Loach told the Radio Times in 2001.

“I turned down the OBE because it’s not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who’ve got it.”

8. Jim Broadbent

Jim Broadbent attending the Paddington 2 Premiere at BFI Southbank, London.
Jim Broadbent attending the Paddington 2 Premiere at BFI Southbank, London.
PA Archive/PA Images

Actor Jim Broadbent said he believes honours should be given “to those that help others” after he revealed in 2012 he rejected one a couple of years previously.

He said: “I’m not that comfortable with actors receiving honours, partly because I think they ought to go to those who really help others.

“Besides, I like the idea of actors not being part of the Establishment.

“We’re vagabonds and rogues, and we’re not a part of the authorities and Establishment, really. If you mix the two together, things get blurry.”

9. John Lennon

John Lennon at the Saville Theatre after receiving his MBE from the Queen.
John Lennon at the Saville Theatre after receiving his MBE from the Queen.
PA Archive/PA Images

John Lennon, similarly to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Carla Lane, is one of the few honours recipients to send his back.

In 1969 the Beatle returned his MBE in protest against Britain’s foreign policy.

He reportedly wrote to the Queen, informing her: “Your Majesty, I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”

10. Phil Scraton

Professor Phil Scraton.
Professor Phil Scraton.
PA Archive/PA Images

Hillsborough campaigner and academic Professor Phil Scraton rejected the offer of an OBE in this year’s Queen’s New Year’s honours list, citing how successive governments reneged “on any kind support for the families in getting to the truth”.

Scraton was widely praised for snubbing the honour, which he said would not be “fitting” for him to accept.

But the academic was quick to stress that his rejection “in no way reflects on the acceptance of an honour by family members or campaign leaders”.

Scraton said: “I think that many of the people who are involved in offering such honours have been part of that process and I feel very strongly that I could not accept an honour now that these issues have been resolved in the way in which they have.”

He added: “These awards are made without recognising ties to an imperialist history or its legacy. I could not accept an honour tied in name to the ‘British Empire’. In my scholarship and teaching I remain a strong critic of the historical, cultural and political contexts of imperialism and their international legacy.”


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