Ken Livingstone adds his name to a growing number of honours list refuseniks

by Jeremy Miles

So Ken Livingstone has turned down the offer of a CBE in the latest New Year’s honours list. No big surprise there. The man they used to call ‘Red Ken’ revealed that he’d rejected the gong – offered in recognition of his work in bringing the 2012 Olympics to London – during his LBC radio show this morning.

While it is clear that the former Mayor of London and one-time notorious left wing leader of the Greater London Council would have been courting publicity disaster had he accepted an honour bearing  the word ‘Empire’, this is a subject that still splits the nation.

For even as Livingstone joins the  growing list of high-achievers who have shown by example that they believe the honours system to be elitist,unfair and outdated, the country is celebrating the knighting of Olympic and Tour de France cycling hero Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Many a new year’s fancy dress party will I am sure feature boisterous air-punching by people sporting Wiggo sideburns and perhaps an old inner-tube around their neck. He became flavour of the month in mid-summer and is still tickling the nation’s tastebuds as we career into 2013. Good luck to him. Bradley Wiggins is a great character and a fine sportsman. His knighthood will I am sure be shared in spirit with his friends, fans, family and all those who supported his cycling career.But that doesn’t make the honours system right.

It’s interesting that the  number of honours refuseniks is rising. They are reported to include Oscar winning film director  Danny Boyle who was also in line for an Olympics-related knighthood for his direction of the world-acclaimed London 2012 opening ceremony. He may have persuaded the Queen to appear alongside James Bond and have her parachute into the Olympic stadium flashing her bloomers but it appears that he quickly told the government’s arts and media honours committee that there was no way she was waving a sword in the direction of his shoulder.

Boyle later explained his position to BBC Radio 4 presenter Mark Lawson, saying:  “I’m very proud to be an equal citizen and I think that’s what the opening ceremony was actually about,”

Many other people have turned down honours. Although figures are not yet available for this year, in 2009, 2010 and 2011 a total of 116 people said “no thanks” and statistics released for the first time last year show a raft of famous names who declined an honour between 1951 and 1999.

They include Francis Bacon, LS Lowry, Graham Greene, Henry Moore, Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, JB Priestley, Philip Larkin,  Roald Dahl and JG Ballard who described the honours system as a “preposterous charade,”  Among more recent names are David Bowie, Vanessa Redgrave, David Hockney, and Alan Bennett. There are many more.

As well as those who have refused an honour there have some who handed them back like Beatle John Lennon who, in 1969, returned his MBE in protest at British support of the US military in Vietnam.