List of people who have declined a British honour

Summary

The following is a partial list of people who have declined a British honour, such as a knighthood or other grade of honour.

Methodology

In most cases, the offer of an honour was rejected privately. Nowadays, potential recipients are contacted before any public announcement to confirm in writing that they wish to be put forward for an honour, thereby avoiding friction or controversy. However, some have let it be known that the offer was declined, and there have also been occasional leaks from official sources. A handful of people have accepted and later renounced an honour; these are listed at the end of the article.

In 2003, Sunday Times published a list of almost 300 people who had declined an honour between 1951 and 1999.[1] In 2020, the Guardian reported based on a Freedom of Information request, that the number of people refusing an honour in 2020 was 68 out of 2,504 offered, or 2.7%.[2]

Reasons for rejection

Honours are rejected for a variety of reasons. Some potential recipients have rejected one honour then accepted another (such as Sir Paul McCartney[citation needed] and Sir Alfred Hitchcock[3]), or have initially refused an honour then accepted it,[who?] or have accepted one honour then declined another (such as actor Robert Morley[4]) or refused in the hope of another higher distinction (Roald Dahl refused being decorated as Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE),[3] allegedly because he wanted a knighthood so that his wife would be entitled to be known as "Lady Dahl").[5]

Sometimes a potential recipient will refuse a knighthood or peerage, but will accept an honour that does not bestow a title (or precedence), such as the Order of Merit (OM) or the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH); E. M. Forster, Paul Scofield, Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter (although Pinter's widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, was later appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire or DBE),[6] David Hockney, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Augustus John, V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, Francis Crick and Paul Dirac are examples.

Honours declined

Kingdom

  • In 1657, Oliver Cromwell, already Head of State and Head of Government as Lord Protector, was offered the crown by Parliament as part of a revised constitutional settlement; he had been "instrumental" in abolishing the monarchy after the English Civil War. Cromwell agonised for six weeks over the offer. In a speech on 13 April 1657, he gave his opinion that the office of monarch, once abolished, should stay so: "I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again."[7]

Dukedom

Marquessate

Earldom

Viscountcy

Barony

Life peerage (barony)

Life peerages are offered to all former Prime Ministers when they step down as MPs. The last to accept a peerage was Margaret Thatcher in 1992. Her husband Denis was created a baronet. Four of her successors declined a peerage, whilst one (Theresa May) continues to serve as an MP.

  • Isaiah Berlin, OM, philosopher (in 1980).[3]
  • Rodney Bickerstaffe, trade union leader and socialist; General Secretary of UNISON. Declined Blair's offer in 2000, reportedly saying that to accept would betray his socialist beliefs.[22][23]
  • Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, stating the House of Lords was "not my sort of thing". In 1999, Blair’s government had significantly reduced the size of the House of Lords.[24] He did however accept a knighthood as a Knight of the Garter at the end of 2021.
  • Albert Booth, Labour MP and Cabinet Minister 1974-79
  • Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, who was an advocate for an elected upper house.
  • David Cameron, former Prime Minister, in line with his three predecessors.
  • John Cleese, film and television actor, comedian (in 1999; stated that he "did not wish to spend winters in England" and being a peer would be "ridiculous", had previously declined appointment as CBE in 1996).[3][25]
  • Jean Floud, sociologist, Nuffield College Oxford. Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, declined a peerage (in 1978).
  • Michael Foot, former Labour Party Leader.[26]
  • John Freeman, Labour MP, journalist, broadcaster, diplomat, and businessman.[27]
  • Geoffrey Goodman, journalist.[28]
  • Sir Edward Heath, former Prime Minister. Preferring to retain seat as an MP, he personally disapproved of political honours while realising their usefulness as a source of political patronage.
  • Thomas Jackson, trade union leader, 1979.[29]
  • Jack Jones, trade union leader, on several occasions, as he advocated the abolition of the House of Lords.[30]
  • Sir John Major, outgoing Prime Minister (in 2001 as he thought a seat in the Lords was incompatible with retiring from politics; he later accepted appointment as KG).[31]
  • Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, Roman Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster (in 2009; reportedly on advice from the Holy See due to concerns that it would compromise the Church's impartiality and a prohibition in canon law on priests holding political office).[32][33]
  • Stan Newens, Labour MP for Harlow; declined a proposed peerage from Michael Foot in 1983.
  • Enoch Powell, Conservative and Ulster Unionist MP.[citation needed]
  • J. B. Priestley, novelist and playwright (in 1965).[34]
  • Joseph Robinson, a South African mining magnate, declined a peerage in 1922 after controversy arose regarding his nomination, which was given in exchange for political contributions.
  • Norman Willis, General-Secretary, TUC.
  • Tony Woodley, former General Secretary of Unite, initially turned down two offers of a peerage in 2018 and August 2020, before accepting in November 2020.[35][36]

As a part of the House of Lords reform in 1999, members of the Royal Family who were peers of the first creation were offered life peerages as a pure formality, which would have given them the right to sit in the House of Lords, but nobody seriously expected them to accept, and all declined with the exception of the Earl of Snowdon.[37] These included:

Baronetcy

In addition to these, many offers of baronetcies have technically been declined, since this is a hereditary honour and was one way, until recent times, for the Crown to raise money from landed gentry. When a baronetcy becomes vacant on the death of a holder, the heir may choose not to register the proofs of succession, effectively declining the honour. The baronetcy can be revived at any time on provision of acceptable proofs of succession, by, say, the son of a son who has declined to register the proofs of succession.[42] As of December 2017 some 208 baronetcies are listed as awaiting proofs of succession.[43]

Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter

  • Charles Vincent Massey, had to refuse the Garter due to the Government of Canada's policy on peerages and knighthoods. He accepted the Royal Victorian Chain in 1960.
  • Neville Chamberlain was offered the Order shortly before his death in 1940, but felt too ill to accept.[44]
  • Harold Macmillan declined the Order in March 1964, as he felt it should only be conferred for service during a national crisis, privately remarking that acceptance would have given him "the substance without the shadow."[44]

Knight Companion of the Order of the Thistle

  • Ramsay MacDonald declined the Order in 1935 as he felt accepting would go against his principles as a member of the Labour Party.[44]

Knighthood (Knight Bachelor)

  • T. S. Ashton, economic historian, Professor of Economic History, University of London (in 1957).[45]
  • Frank Auerbach, artist, declined knighthood in 2003.[4][46]
  • Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International; was offered several times, but refused on each occasion, citing human rights abuses in which the British government was complicit.[47][48]
  • Alan Bennett, playwright (in 1996; had previously declined appointment as CBE in 1988).[3]
  • Arnold Bennett, novelist, declined knighthood offered for service in running the British government's French propaganda department during World War I.[49]
  • Henry Benyon, Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, declined knighthood in 1956.[45] Accepted a baronetcy in 1958.[50]
  • David Bowie, musician (in 2003; also declined CBE in 2000).[51][52]
  • Danny Boyle, theatre and film director (in 2013).[53]
  • Lester Brain, aviator and airline executive (in late 1960s; later accepted appointment as an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1979).[54]
  • Joseph Conrad, novelist
  • Francis Crick, physicist, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA; was also offered a CBE in 1963, but did not accept it. Later accepted appointment to the Order of Merit.[55]
  • Hugh Cudlipp, newspaper editor (1966).[56]
  • Paul Dirac, scientist, declined a knighthood in 1953, reportedly in part due to his dislike of being addressed by his first name, but probably had egalitarian objections to titles;[57] finally accepted an Order of Merit in 1973 as it was not a title.[58]
  • Bernie Ecclestone, businessman and Formula One boss. He stated in a 2019 interview that while he was glad if he had done some good, this was not his main intention when setting out in business, so he did not feel he deserved an honour.[59]
  • Michael Faraday, scientist: "I must remain plain Michael Faraday to the last".[when?][60][failed verification]
  • Harry Ferguson, businessman, engineer and inventor; twice offered and declined knighthood in the last ten years of his life; in response to a letter from Winston Churchill offering to submit his name, Ferguson declined on the ground that knighthoods should be reserved for servicemen and statesmen, whose financial rewards were relatively small, and should not be given to businessmen or industrialists with financial wealth.[61]
  • Albert Finney, actor (in 2000; had previously declined CBE in 1980).[3]
  • E. M. Forster, author and essayist; declined knighthood in 1949, but accepted a Companion of Honour in the 1953 New Year Honours list and an Order of Merit in 1969.[62][63]
  • Michael Frayn, novelist and dramatist; declined a knighthood in the 2003 New Year Honours and a CBE four years previously; Frayn stated: "I haven't done this for reasons of modesty. I like the name 'Michael Frayn'; it's a nice little name to run around with. I've spent 70 years getting used to it and I don't want to change it now."[3]
  • John Freeman, politician, journalist, diplomat, business executive. Also declined a peerage.[27]
  • John Galsworthy, playwright, declined knighthood in 1918 New Year Honours,[64] but accepted appointment to the Order of Merit in 1929 as it was not a title.
  • Graham Greene, novelist
  • Calouste Gulbenkian, businessman and philanthropist (in 1951)
  • John Winthrop Hackett, Australian newspaper owner (in 1902); turned down a knighthood after it was gazetted in 1902, but accepted it in 1911.
  • Herbert Hart, Professor of Jurisprudence Oxford, in 1966 as he believed state honours should only be given for exceptional public service.
  • Stanford G. Haughton, sound recordist/musician (in 1952).[45]
  • Stephen Hawking CH CBE, physicist, reportedly turned down a knighthood because he "does not like titles."[65]
  • Bill Hayden, Governor-General of Australia.[66]
  • Patrick Heron, artist, declined a knighthood allegedly over the education policy of the government in the 1980s.[67]
  • Peter Higgs, CH, physicist, Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Edinburgh; co-discoverer of the Higgs boson in 1999, because he felt honours are used for political purposes by the government. He later accepted appointment to the Order of the Companions of Honour, because he was (wrongly) assured that it was the personal gift of the Queen, in 2013.[68][69][70]
  • Keith Hill, Labour MP; declined knighthood in 2010 Dissolution Honours, stating: "My fundamental reason is that I have never had the least desire to have a title. I don't want to be discourteous, but I find the whole idea a little embarrassing and too much for me."[71]
  • David Hockney, CH RA, artist (in 1990; accepted appointment as CH in 1997, and OM in 2012 because they are not titles).[3]
  • Anthony Hurd, Conservative politician, in 1956,[45] accepted in 1959[72]
  • Aldous Huxley, author (in 1959).[3]
  • Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan; offered a knighthood in 1925, he replied: "I prefer to be plain Mr Jinnah".[citation needed]
  • Rudyard Kipling, writer, and poet; declined knighthood in 1899 and again in 1903; his wife stated that Kipling felt he could "do his work better without it".[73] Kipling also declined the Order of Merit in 1921 and again in 1924.[74] Kipling expressed his own view on the importance of titles and poetry in his poem "The Last Rhyme of True Thomas".
  • T. E. Lawrence, Arabist, archaeologist, soldier; George V offered Lawrence a knighthood on 30 October 1918 at a private audience in Buckingham Palace for his services in the Arab Revolt, but he declined.[75][76] He was unwilling to accept the honour in light of how his country had double-crossed the Arabs.[77]
  • Essington Lewis, Australian mining magnate.[78]
  • Edgar Lobel, Romanian-British classicist and papyrologist; (in 1955).
  • L. S. Lowry, artist (in 1968; had previously declined appointment as OBE in 1955 and CBE in 1961; later twice declined appointment as CH (1972, 1976); holds the record for the most honours declined).[3]
  • Humphrey Lyttleton, jazz musician and broadcaster (in 1995).[79]
  • Arthur Mann, editor of the Yorkshire Post, declined two knighthoods in the 1920s on the basis that accepting would interfere with his journalism; upon retirement he became a Companion of Honour.[80]
  • Kingsley Martin, journalist and successful editor of the 'New Statesman' reaching its highest circulation in the 1930s and 1940s. He declined the 'honour' in 1965 because he strongly disapproved of the honours system, certainly for journalists.
  • John Loudon McAdam, Scottish road builder.[81]
  • Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum (in 1999); in 2010 he accepted appointment to the Order of Merit, the personal gift of the British monarch.[45]
  • Michael Meacher, Labour politician
  • James Meade, economist, civil servant, and academic. Economic Adviser to the Treasury 1945–51; Professor of Economics at LSE; Nobel Prize in Economics 1974.
  • Stanley Morison, typographer (in 1953).[45]
  • Robert Neild, economic adviser Labour government 1964–67. Professor of Economics Cambridge University
  • Peter O'Toole, film and stage actor.
  • William Pember Reeves, New Zealand politician, declined knighthood three times, including GCMG.[82][when?]
  • Frank Pick, chief executive of London Transport (also declined a peerage).[83]
  • Harold Pinter, playwright
  • John Piper, artist, declined a Kt in 1964.
  • Anthony Powell, novelist, earlier accepted CBE and later the OM.
  • William Poel, actor and Shakespearean director. Declined a knighthood twice.
  • J. B. Priestley, playwright and novelist.
  • Hon. Frank Russell, judge (1919); on the grounds that as the son of a peer he outranked a knight bachelor. Accepted a law life peerage as Baron Russell of Killowen in 1929.
  • B. A. Santamaria, Australian Catholic social campaigner.[84]
  • Amartya Sen, economist and Nobel Prize winner.[when?]
  • George Bernard Shaw, playwright, critic, and socialist; also declined OM.[85]
  • Paul Scofield, actor (in 1968).[45]
  • Quentin Skinner, historian; Regius Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge; republican[86] (in 1996).
  • A.J.P. Taylor, historian, probably due to anti-Establishment views, e.g. "The Establishment draws its recruits from outside as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable. There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment - and nothing so corrupting."
  • Ian Taylor, oil company executive.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer; accepted Order of Merit in 1935.[87]
  • J. Steven Watson, historian, declined offer of knighthood twice, in 1960 while at Oxford, and after becoming Principal of St. Andrews University 1966
  • Patrick White, Australian writer, Nobel Prize for Literature (1970).[88]
  • John Walpole Willis, colonial judge, barrister and author, refused a knighthood at least twice.[89]
  • John Henry Whitley, Liberal MP and Speaker of the House of Commons[90]
  • Norman Willis, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress; "turned down a knighthood offered to him by John Major, just as he had turned aside a proposal from the Labour leader John Smith that he might consider going into the House of Lords".[91]
  • Bill Woodfull, Australian cricketer; turned down offer of a knighthood for services to cricket in 1934, but accepted OBE for services to education in 1963 which he saw as more important work than playing cricket.[92]
  • John Zachary Young, neurophysiologist

Appointment to the Order of the Bath

As Knight Companion (KB)

Appointment to the Order of Merit (OM)

  • W. H. Auden, poet
  • Rudyard Kipling.
  • A. E. Housman, poet and classical scholar (in 1929).[94]
  • George Bernard Shaw, playwright, critic, and polemicist (in 1946; Shaw replied that "merit" in authorship could only be determined by the posthumous verdict of history).[85] Shaw had wanted to decline the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, but accepted it at his wife's behest as honouring Ireland. He did not reject the monetary award, requesting it be used to finance translation of Swedish books into English.[95]
  • H. G. Wells, writer.[when?]

Appointment to the Order of the Star of India

As Knight Commander (KCSI)

Appointment to the Order of St Michael and St George

As Knight Grand Cross Commander (GCMG)

  • Faimalaga Luka, Governor-General and Prime Minister of Tuvalu.[citation needed]

As Knight Commander (KCMG)

As Companion (CMG)

Appointment to the Order of the Indian Empire

As a Companion (CIE)

  • Narayan Malhar Joshi (1879–1955), Member of the Bombay Corporation (1919–1922) and Indian Legislative Assembly; delegate to the ILO and Round Table Conferences (refused in 1921, on the grounds he was too poor for the honour).[99][100]

Appointment to the Royal Victorian Order

As a Commander (CVO)

  • Craig Murray, former United Kingdom Ambassador to Uzbekistan (had previously declined appointments as LVO and OBE),[101] in 1999, for reasons of Scottish nationalism and republicanism.

Appointment as a Companion of Honour (CH)

Appointment to the Order of the British Empire

As a Knight Grand Cross (GBE)

  • Charles Wilson, 1st Baron Moran (in 1962) – offered for services as chairman of a government committee but declined, commenting it was "the sort of thing given to civil servants".[102]
  • Sir Harry Shackleton (in the 1951 Birthday Honours List).[103]

As a Knight Commander (KBE)

As a Dame Commander (DBE)

  • Dorothy Hodgkin, scientist, Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1964 (later accepted OM).
  • Glenda Jackson, actress and politician.
  • Doris Lessing, CH, author (declined DBE in 1992, stating it was in the name of a non-existent Empire; also declined appointment as OBE in 1977; accepted appointment as CH as it is does not carry a title, in 2000).[3][105] Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Vanessa Redgrave, actress (accepted CBE in 1967; declined damehood in 1999,[3] but accepted it in 2022).
  • Geraldine McEwan, actress[4] (in 2002; had previously declined appointment as OBE in 1986).
  • Bridget Riley, artist (accepted CH and CBE).
  • Dorothy Wedderburn, academic, Principal of Royal Holloway and Bedford College London, 1980–90.

As a Commander (CBE)

As an Officer (OBE)

As a Member (MBE)

  • John Allen, political adviser to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, declined honour in 1969.[citation needed]
  • Major Derek Allhusen, Olympic equestrian gold medallist, 1969 New Year Honours (accepted CVO in 1984 as Standard Bearer of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms).[45]
  • Marcel Aurousseau, Australian geologist, 1956 New Year Honours.[45]
  • Rowena Cade, founder of the Minack Theatre, Cornwall (in 1969).
  • Patrick Collins, sports journalist and author.[4][when?]
  • Joseph Corré, co-founder of Agent Provocateur (in 2007, claiming his belief that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair was "morally corrupt".[131])
  • Edward Tegla Davies, Wesleyan Methodist minister and a popular Welsh language writer (in 1963).[45]
  • John Dunn, broadcaster.[4][when?]
  • Lynn Faulds Wood, TV presenter (in 2016); "I would love to have an honour if it didn't have the word 'empire' on the end of it. We don't have an empire, in my opinion."[132]
  • Howard Gayle, first black footballer to play for Liverpool FC. Declined the MBE in 2016 saying it would be "a betrayal" to Africans who suffered at the hands of the British Empire.
  • Marjorie Hebden, declined MBE for services to the Malvern Museum.[4][when?]
  • David Heckels, declined MBE[when?] for charitable services to the arts.[4]
  • Bob Holman, community activist in Easterhouse, 2012 birthday honours.[133]
  • Gwendoline Laxon, declined MBE for services to charity.[4][when?]
  • Susan Loppert, art historian.[4][when?]
  • John Lydon, musician (formerly known as "Johnny Rotten").[when?]
  • George Mpanga, poet and lyricist.[134]
  • Barry McGuigan, boxer (in 1986; later accepted the honour in 1994)[135]
  • John Pandit aka Pandit G, musician, 2002, does not believe in the honours system, says acknowledgement should be given by funding projects.[4][136]
  • Doris Purnell, declined MBE for services to drama.[4][when?]
  • John Sales, head gardener.[4][when?]
  • Joan Smith, journalist, declined MBE as it was counter to the views she had spoken about in her career, i.e. atheism, feminism and republicanism.[citation needed][when?]
  • Jonzi D, writer, choreographer and rap artist, declined MBE for services to the arts in 2012, saying subsequently: "I am diametrically opposed to the idea of empire. Man, I'm a Star Wars fan – empire is bad."[137]
  • Alan Watkins, journalist, political columnist.[when?]
  • Nikesh Shukla, declined offer of MBE for services to literature in 2021.[138]

Renouncing an honour

As no official provision exists for (unilaterally) renouncing an honour, any such act is always unofficial, and the record of the appointment in the London Gazette stands. Nevertheless, the physical insignia can be returned to the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood; although is purely symbolic, as replacement insignia may be purchased for a nominal sum. Any recipient can also request that the honour not be used officially, e.g. Donald Tsang, ex-Chief Executive of Hong Kong, was knighted in 1997 but has not used the title since the handover to China.[139]

Those who have returned insignia include:

  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist (returned MBE insignia in 2003 in her view of "a growing spirit of republicanism and partly in protest at the Labour government, particularly its conduct of the war in Iraq").
  • Roy Bailey, folk singer (returned MBE insignia in August 2006 in protest at the British Government's foreign policy in Lebanon and Palestine).
  • Carla Lane, television writer (appointed OBE in 1989; returned insignia in 2002 in protest at the appointment of CBE of the managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences due to the company's reputed animal testing).
  • John Lennon, musician (returned MBE insignia in 1969; returned with letter that read, "I am returning this MBE 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.").
  • Gareth Peirce, solicitor[140] (gazetted CBE in 1999, but later she returned its insignia, blaming herself and apologizing to then Prime Minister Tony Blair for the misunderstanding).
  • Narindar Saroop, soldier and Tory politician. Returned CBE in 2016 in disgust at the "Dishonours List" of David Cameron "showering peerages, knighthoods and other rewards on friends and party backers".
  • Michael Sheen, Welsh actor (appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 2009 New Year Honours list for his services to drama[141]). In 2020 Sheen returned the award after researching the relationship between Wales and the British state, saying "I'd be a hypocrite if I said the things I was going to say in the lecture about the nature of the relationship between Wales and the British state."[142]
  • Susan Wighton, AIDS worker (returned MBE insignia in 2006 in protest at the British Government's Middle East foreign policies).
  • In June 1965 a number of holders of honours and decorations, mainly awarded for military service, returned their insignia in protest at the nomination of the four members of The Beatles for the MBE.[143] They included Hector Dupuis, a member of the House of Commons of Canada, Paul Pearson, a former RAF squadron leader, and James Berg, all of whom returned their MBEs; David Evan Rees, a former sea captain, who returned his OBE; and Richard Pape, a wartime escapee and author, who returned his Military Medal.[144][145][146][147]

Knights who have "renounced" their knighthoods include:

See also

References

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