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Declining honours

26 July 2012

NAME the odd one out: the impressionist Rory Bremner, the pop star Gary Barlow, the comedian Dawn French, and the painter L. S. Lowry. The answer is Gary Barlow. He accepted an honour from the Queen, while all the others refused. Apparently, L. S. Lowry holds the record: he turned down an honour on five different occasions. So, if the letter from the honours committee dropped on your doormat, would you accept? After all, isn't rejection just being churlish?

Barlow has been in the wrong sort of news recently. When he was awarded an OBE earlier this year, he said he was thrilled. "Growing up, I never dreamt that one day I'd be getting one myself. I enjoy every minute of the work I do, with a lot of it being a reward in itself; so for somebody to decide I should get recognised for that is just amazing."

But we have since discovered that his work is not quite enough in terms of reward - because he has also used a tax scheme that leaves him paying only one per cent income tax. How does the British Empire feel about that?

Of course, for the author J. G. Ballard, another of the honours "refuseniks", the Empire was the problem. "Thousands of medals are given out in the name of a non-existent empire," he said. "It makes us look a laughing stock, and encourages deference to the crown."

But when the film director Ken Loach said no to an OBE in 1977, it had less to do with the Queen and more to do with the other winners: "It's not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who've got one."

Bremner turned down an OBE for professional reasons. As Alistair Campbell reveals in his book Burden of Power: "His view was that, even if the offer was not made in the hope of taming his comedy, if even one person watching him perform felt it did, it was not a risk worth taking."

My main issue with the honours system is that it rewards the fortunate who have already been rewarded. I am delighted that Barlow can write songs, and I happily sing along to them in the bath. But, even without his tax-avoidance schemes, he has been very amply paid. As Jesus could see a long time ago, it is the way of all flesh: "To those who have, more shall be given."

Occasionally, of course, the awards filter down to communities, and an MBE is offered to some local stalwart. But is anyone really helped by this? Those who are psychologically well are happy with the life they are given, and the love they are able to show. Only the disturbed or the sad could enjoy being set apart from others in this way; and only the desperate could lust after such affirmation.

The chances are remote. But, if the letter came my way, I would feel a moment of pride, laugh at the absurdity, and then politely say "No".

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