Arise, Sir Mick

Twice a year, on the Queen's birthday in June and at the New Year, Buckingham Palace announces the names of around 1,500 people to receive special medals for, "services to the United Kingdom and Commonwealth." Last year Mick Jagger became a 'Sir', Eric Clapton and Sting received CBEs, and a tea lady from Scotland became an MBE. But why does the Queen give out these strange sounding honours, and what happens if somebody says "No thank you, Your Majesty"? Glenn Fobister explains.

This year's honours list was, as usual these days, controversial. The addition of The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger prompted furious criticism from his songwriting partner and Stones guitarist, Keith Richards, who said it was a "paltry honour". Richards berated Jagger in the newspapers for accepting an award from a British establishment that did its best to keep them both in jail following convictions for drug offences (later quashed) in the nineteen sixties. Nevertheless, why did Jagger become a knight?" Critics point out that he doesn't even live in Britain and is not exactly known for his philanthropy. Add this to his chequered past and one is left with the idea that he received the award simply for longevity.
Celebrities are not the only recipients of these honours. Many of the awards go to civil servants, but sometimes those without governmental occupations are honoured for services to others. For example, Isa Allen MBE is a tea lady. An MBE for a tea lady? "Shorely shome mishtake," as Sir Sean Connery might say. But the aforementioned tea lady is just one of over 500 members of the public awarded last year. Isa was nominated by her boss at the Scottish Enterprise Development Agency for 18 years conscientious employment. Other examples include Carol Davis MBE, school caretaker; Mary Munden MBE, nursery nurse; Dr James Cox OBE, doctor and Bushra Khanum Nasir CBE, head teacher.

Most countries have an honours system, but few are as complicated as the British honours system. The list is created twice a year, chosen by the Queen with the assistance of the Prime Minister, and many nominations come from the general public. There are usually 3,000 people chosen to be honoured each year. Within the honours system there are many complicated grades involved, but to break it down, this is how it looks (see table below).

What happens if you refuse an honour?

Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephaniah caused lots of controversy when he refused his invitation to accept an OBE in 2003. He was awarded the medal for his longstanding work for the British Council. The poet, whose powerful, invective-filled verse frequently attacks the establishment (especially the British government) seemed incandescent with rage at being invited to collect an honour from the Queen.

His has certainly been the most vocal refusal in the history of the awards. Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Zephaniah said that the honour's title, the Order of the British Empire (OBE) was a legacy of colonialism and brutal exploitation. "Stick it, Mr Blair and Mrs Queen, stop going on about empire," wrote the poet.

Rejecting the invitation is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 13th century, when knights were forced to do military service, so many invitations of knighthood were refused that Henry III imposed a huge fine on any man who declined one. Many years later, after losing the 1945 election, Winston Churchill refused to accept the Order of the Garter from King George VI. He later accepted a knighthood when he was back in power in 1953. Modern critics of the honours system have attacked it for being outmoded and pointless. The Labour Party in particular wants the system simplified. "The whole system really needs shaking up," said government minister Gordon Prentice, who believes the whole thing is too complicated and needs simplifying.

But in the spirit of the Great British rebel (they're out there somewhere, I assure you) let me leave you with a short list of those who refused these honours - usually because they don't believe in an honours system on principal. David Bowie refused his CBE in 2000, stating that he didn't know what it was for. Ex-Monty Python funny man John Cleese didn't find his offer of a CBE too amusing. Perhaps he was told he couldn't accept it while doing a silly walk? Actor Kenneth Branagh didn't want his CBE either. Novelist Graham Greene refused a CBE in 1956, Alfred Hitchcock went "psycho" when he heard he was being offered the same honour in 1962 and painter L.S. Lowry turned refusing honours into a lifestyle. He refused an OBE in 1955, refused a CBE in 1961 and turned down a knighthood in 1968, 1972 and then again in 1978.

Here are two verses of a poem Benjamin Zephaniah wrote after hearing that he had been offered an OBE.

Bought and Sold

Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It's not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.

The ancestors would turn in graves
Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder
How our souls were sold
And check our strategies,
The empire strikes back and waves
Tamed warriors bow on parades
And when they have done what they've been told
They get their OBEs.