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British honors? Not for me, please

By Associated Press
Published December 27, 2003

LONDON - Sir Mick Jagger was delighted to become a knight. Keith Richards called it a disgrace. As with the Rolling Stones, so with British society: Some crave titles, some refuse them, some consider it all a joke.

Still others, like Winston Churchill, change their minds - perhaps when later offered a higher rank or from a government more to their taste.

London's Sunday Times this week published a list of 300 people who declined honors since 1945.

About 2 percent of the 3,000 people chosen each year decline, according to the government. Most do so quietly, but last month poet Benjamin Zephaniah publicly rejected an OBE - Officer of the Order of the British Empire - because the title reminded him of "thousands of years of brutality."

"Stick it, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen, stop going on about empire," he wrote in the Guardian newspaper.

After the list was published, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government promised to make the system of awarding knighthoods and other honors more open.

Twice a year the government announces recipients of a host of titles, from knighthoods and damehoods to Companions of Honor, for exceptional achievement or service to the nation.

Though the honors are bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II, most recipients are chosen by committees of civil servants from nominations made by the government and the public.

The government wants to increase diversity on the selection committees - largely white, male and older than 60 - and among recipients. Government statistics show between 2 and 4 percent of the top honors go to ethic minorities, who make up about 8 percent of the population.

But some lawmakers are calling for a bigger overhaul.

"I think they are decided on a whim. I think they are capricious," said Labor Party lawmaker Gordon Prentice. "I just think it is time to get rid of all these ridiculous gradations. We need an open, simple, transparent system. The whole system really needs shaking up."

The Cabinet Office said decisions about honors are made "entirely on merit."

However, one leaked document revealed tennis star Tim Henman was being recommended for an OBE to "add interest" to the list.

When the New Year's Honors are announced next week, Henman is in the no-win situation of being revealed as considered but rejected, or given an honor for dubious reasons.

A parliamentary committee has indicated it will look into the leaking of the list to the newspaper, according to the BBC.

Grumbling over titles is nothing new. In the 13th century, when knights were expected to do military service, so many men declined the honor that King Henry III began imposing fines on those who refused, according to Debrett's Peerage & Baronetage.

Refusing honors

Some people who refused British honors, according to London's Sunday Times:

- Writer Michael Frayn

- Comedians John Cleese, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders

- Actors Kenneth Branagh, Geraldine McEwan, Honor Blackman, Albert Finney

- Singer David Bowie

- Playwright Alan Bennett

- Authors Roald Dahl, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh

Some who changed their minds:

- Actors Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Scofield

- Artists Bridget Riley and David Hockney

- Film director Alfred Hitchcock

- Writer Graham Greene

- Author V.S. Naipaul

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