George Harrison turned an OBE down in 2000 after Paul McCartney was awarded a knighthood – with his friend claiming it was ‘extremely insensitive’
Deciding who gets onto the New Year’s Honours List must be a trick process – and often causes tension.
Many people dream of receiving an honour from The Queen, but there have been a number of famous faces over the years who have turned it down.
Perhaps the most controversial of all time involved the Beatles – with one member returning their honour and another declining his because he felt ‘insulted’.
All four members of the legendary band, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, were awarded an MBE in 1965.
They were nominated by then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, but controversy erupted due to the honour primarily being bestowed on military veterans and civic leaders at the time.
Some Conservative MBE recipients even returned their insignia because they believed awarding it to a mere ‘pop group’ trivialised the honour.
In response, John said: “They got them for killing people. We got ours for entertaining. I’d say we deserve ours more.”
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The Beatles went to Buckingham Palace to be awarded their MBEs by The Queen and later revealed they had a cheeky cigarette in the toilets to calm the nerves.
Flustered during his meeting with The Queen, Lennon said she had asked if the band had been working hard recently.
“She said to me, ‘Have you been working hard recently?’” he explained . “And I couldn’t think what we’ve been doing, so I said, ‘No, we’ve been having a holiday,’ when actually we’ve been recording.”
John felt uneasy about accepting the honour in case it appeared he endorsed the establishment – and things took a drastic turn four years later.
Lennon famously sent his MBE back in protest at British involvement in the Nigerian civil war in 1966.
Along with the medal, he sent The Queen a note which 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.”
His MBE medal remained in the vault of the Chancery Department of the Royal Household, but his title remained until his tragic death in 1980.
The rules state that “an individual may decide to renounce their honour voluntarily” but they “would still hold the honour unless or until HM Queen annulled it”.
There was more drama in 1997 when McCartney was knighted for services to music – but neither of his bandmates were.
Harrison was said to have been ‘insulted’ by the snub, having always resented being in the shadow of McCartney and Lennon.
In 2013, Cabinet Office papers reveal that Harrison turned down an OBE after Paul was awarded a knighthood because of its lower status.
“Whoever it was who decided to offer him the OBE and not the knighthood was extraordinarily insensitive,” friend Roy Connolly told The Daily Mail.
“George would have felt insulted – and with very good reason.”
The OBE was recommended by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to acknowledge Harrison’s significant contribution to the music industry.
It read: “He was a member of a band that many people would say is the best thing that Britain has ever produced, and possibly the best in the world, The Beatles.”
A few years later in 2001, Harrison sadly died from lung cancer at the age of 51.
There have been attempts to give George a posthumous knighthood, but hopes were dashed in 2002 by William Chapman, the then secretary of appointments at 10 Downing Street.
In a letter, he wrote: “The Prime Minister may not recommend posthumous awards to the Order of the British Empire. I can assure you that this rule has not changed and that there is no truth in newspaper reports that a knighthood is to be bestowed on the late George Harrison.”
That opinion was reiterated by a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, who added: “The rules state that posthumous honours are only awarded for acts of valour. There are absolutely no plans to change that and we have never indicated that there are.”
Another member of the band did receive the highest honour, as Ringo was given a knighthood in the 2018 New Year Honours for services to music.
In March that year he was knighted by Prince William in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.