New Years Honours List: The British idiosyncratic tradition of high fives from Royalty

The tradition of presenting medals and bestowing titles on its subjects is hundreds of year old in the UK – is it stabilising or divisive? Is it relevant globally today? What do they mean and does anyone even care?

One can reasonably assume the recipients of a knighthood or such like care and most (you might imagine) feel honoured and grateful for their life’s work and contribution to society to be recognised. Until you look at the long list of people who said “No thanks Ma’am” to the Queen of England and her various committees of advisors. As I drew the short straw and got this gig (the downloadable list from the government website is 116 pages plus 8 further documents and Ed. wants this done by the morning) I’m driving the order of things and this is where we’ll begin.

People who preferred not to be honoured by The Monarchy:

“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. 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.”

Ken Loach, filmmaker on social issues talking to the Radio Times in 2001

RUDYARD KIPLING refused a knighthood in 1899 and 1903, also declining the Order of Merit in 1921 and 1924 | CS LEWIS said no to a CBE in 1952 | LS LOWRY said no thanks to an OBE, CBE, knighthood and Companion of Honour between 1955 and 1976 | ALDOUS HUXLEY didn’t want his knighthood in 1959 and EVELYN WAUGH refused a CBE | HUGHIE GREEN said no to an OBE in 1960 | JOHN LENNON returned his MBE in 1965 | KEN LOACH turned down his OBE in 1977 | AUDREY CALLAGHAN said no to a Damehood from Margaret Thatcher in 1979 | JOHN CLEESE said no to a CBE in 1996 because they were “silly.” | ALAN BENNETT refused a CBE in 1988 and a knighthood in 1996 | ROALD DAHL rejected an OBE in 1986 | STEPHEN HAWKINS said nada to a knighthood in the late 1990s |

David Bowie refused an OBE in 2000

Actor ALBERT FINNEY said no thanks to a CBE in 1980 and to a knighthood in 2000 as did DAVID BOWIE with GEORGE HARRISON and JON SNOW refusing OBE’s in the same year | FRENCH and SAUNDERS turned down OBEs as did NIGELLA LAWSON in 2001 | Poet BENJAMIN ZEPHANIAH said (literally) “Up yours” to an OBE in 2003 along with J G BALLARD who declined a CBE for Literature and JOHN LE CARRE also turned down an honour in the same year | PAUL WELLER rejected a CBE in 2006 | JIM BROADBENT c.2010 | DANNY BOYLE turned down an honour for the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony | Professor PHIL SCRATON refused his OBE in 2016 | Footballer HOWARD GAYLE refused his MBE nomination for 2017 | ARIANA GRANDE politely refused a Damehood in 2018 according to The Mirror |

Highly respected former Liverpool FC player Howard Gayle declined his MBE nomination for 2017 Photo credit and full story from 2016 @ Liverpool Echo

“Most of you who are on my FB page are aware of the work that I do tackling racism and the work I do for Show Racism A Red Card. And for that work yesterday I was nominated for a MBE. Which unfortunately I had to decline the nomination for the reason that my ancestors would be turning in their graves after how empire and colonialism had enslaved them.”

Howard Gayle reported in The Guardian in August 2016
The British have been knighting subjects since around the 10th century. Time for a revamp? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown thinks so having accepted an MBE that she later returned. In 2006 the journalist wrote “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.” Visit her website @Yasmin Alibhai-Brown


2019’s List includes celebrities such as Monty Python’s Michael Palin, Model Twiggy and Authors Philip Pulman and Margaret Atwood with 70% of the total being recognised for work in their community including rescue workers and responders to terror attacks. BBC News.

“I was very surprised and honoured to be offered a knighthood. I believe the profession of letters should be recognised as having a proper place in the life of the nation, along with science, and sport, and music, and scholarship, and many other human activities. Many people I admire, such as Quentin Blake, Ellen MacArthur, Chris Hoy, Jacqueline Wilson, Nicholas Hytner, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Bryn Terfel, Ray Davies, Mary Beard — far too many to list — have been happy to accept a knighthood or damehood, and I am proud to be in their company.”

Philip Pullman

Here’s the UK Government’s website details of The 2019 New Years Honours list verbatim. To download the full list go here.

In total 1,148 people have received an award:

  • 1018 candidates have been selected at BEM, MBE and OBE level: 358 at BEM, 422 at MBE and 238 at OBE
  • 70% of the recipients are people who have undertaken outstanding work in their communities either in a voluntary or paid capacity
  • 544 women are recognised in the List, representing 47% of the total
  • 12% of the successful candidates come from a BAME background
  • 5% from the LGBT community
  • 4% of the successful candidates consider themselves to have a disability

What the UK Government means by the acronyms:

BAME = British. Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (used to refer to members of non-white communities in the UK); LGBT = Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender; BEM = British Empire Medal; MBE = Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire; OBE = Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire; You can also be made a Knight or a Dame and also a Companion of honour which is limited to 65 people.

So are the New Year Honours and awards of interest or relevance to anyone other than those who gratefully receives or willfully rejects them? Probably not. Is this tradition from antiquity going to continue? Most likely. Like the British Monarchy itself no doubt it will adapt and mold to move with the times and survive. Despite seeming culturally out of step with modern Britain, it’s good to see so many non-celebrities and those who ‘do-good’ within and for their communities being nominated. However, there’s another ‘Tax Person’ getting an OBE again this year – Pauline Chelmsford, HM Revenue and Customs. Hopefully, she won’t get as much stick as previous HMRC recipients. With any luck, not many people will notice. They’ll be too busy complaining that Prime Minister Teresa May may be rewarding political allies. If you appreciated the sharing of these topical ponderings, you know what to do.

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