Snubbing the Queen is a time-honoured tradition in Britain, a fading world power as well known for producing legendary iconoclasts as it is for knights and nobles. But the names of the modest luminaries who have, over the years, discreetly refused the Queen’s accolades and a chance to publicly be called “sir” by someone other than a maitre d’ has remained a closely guarded government secret for decades. Until now.
Last week, the much-anticipated list of dead Britons who’ve declined honours between 1951 and 1999 was made public. Thanks to a hard-fought Freedom of Information request by the BBC, Britain’s Cabinet Office was forced, after a year of resistance in the courts, to release the list of nearly 300 notable refuseniks.
Most striking among them was the Manchester artist L.S. Lowry, who currently holds the record for abnegation, having passed over no fewer than five awards, including one to be an OBE (officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1955 and a knighthood in 1968. His friend and fellow artist Harold Riley told the BBC last week that Lowry’s aversion to accolades was not political but born of a deep modesty. “A person who is private in their own life has got the entitlement to remain like that,” he said. “If some public body decides to honour them, that is one thing, but if somebody feels that by them doing that, they change your status in the eyes of the public, well, that wouldn’t have suited him.”
Also included on the list were many lauded writers of the last century, including Roald Dahl, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Philip Larkin, Robert Graves and the novelist J.B. Priestley who, in 1965, turned down a life peerage. Another revelation was that Alfred Hitchcock, who accepted a knighthood just months before his death, previously refused a lesser honour in 1962. One can only speculate on whether this reversal was motivated by his failure to win an Academy Award, despite being one of the most accomplished directors in cinematic history. Hitchcock became an American citizen in 1956 but always remained a British subject.
It may seem surprising to note that those who renounced include some of 20th-century Britain’s most notorious cultural egotists. But as former Conservative MP and Times columnist Matthew Parris pointed out last week, the roster reveals as much covert vanity as it does quiet principle. “Many were plainly just holding out for a better offer—many finally getting it,” he wrote. “The list conflates the most status-hungry with the most status-averse, with no guide to which are which. Meanwhile, many of those who on principle wouldn’t have accepted any honour won’t be on a list because their views were so well known that they were never asked in the first place.”
Chief among the status-anxious, according to Parris, was the famously cantankerous poet Philip Larkin, who refused an OBE before becoming a more prestigious companion of honour later in life. “Harold Pinter, David Hare, and a whole clutch of people on the left, including friends of mine, have succumbed,” Parris lamented. “Good luck to them all; but every time a rebel takes a gong, a little fairy somewhere dies.”
The most famous honour rejector isn’t technically on the list because he’d already gotten one: in 1969, John Lennon called a televised press conference with Yoko Ono to give back his MBE (member of the Order of the British Empire) on political grounds. According to legend, he posted the medal back to the Queen with a note that read: “Your Majesty, I am returning this in 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. With Love, John Lennon of Bag.”
While Lennon’s gesture was delivered with characteristic cheek, not everyone is amused by such stunts. “It’s seems to me it’s rather more dignified to turn it down quietly and not make a fuss about it,” Robert Hardman, Daily Mail columnist and author of the recently published royal biography Our Queen, said in an interview. In Hardman’s view, people who give back their accolades effectively lose all credibility, since in official terms, once accepted, such honours are for life. “You can hand it back but you can never resign from it. Even if you return it they have a cupboard in St. James’s Palace where they keep it safe in case you ever change your mind.”
Apart from everything else, says Hardman, sending back an honour is just bad manners. “It’s a bit like turning up at a party, drinking the wine, eating the food, and then saying, ‘I never wanted to come to this stupid party anyway.’ ”
In extreme cases, however, people can be officially stripped of their honours—usually after being convicted of a crime. On Tuesday, the honours forfeiture committee (comprised of a group of senior civil servants) recommended to the Queen that ex-Royal Bank of Scotland chief Sir Fred Goodwin lose his knighthood for overseeing the biggest corporate implosion in British history in 2008. Still, he will be allowed to keep the annual $600,000 RBS pension for which he is so publicly reviled.
These honours are distinct from life peerages, which currently cannot be stripped under any circumstances, even when the peer is convicted of a crime. “That’s why Lord Archer and Lord Black of Crossharbour have never had their titles in question,” Hardman explained. “They are a different creation entirely.”