(Credit: Joost Evers / Anefo)

Why John Lennon returned his MBE to the Queen and was "ashamed of being British"

John Lennon had more than enough notable moments in his life. Being the leading member of the most famous band on the planet in The Beatles wasn’t enough. In the late sixties, the singer chose to use his unquestionable platform to make a series of statements about the current state of society, most of them championing a desire and need for world peace. While the bed-ins with Yoko Ono and their performances to support them gained the most press attention, there was one iconic moment which would shake British culture to its core.

Being awarded an honour by the Queen is about as high as praise can get in Britain. While the continued desire to celebrate musicians, artists, actors and other showbiz stars is reaching fever pitch in 2020, in the sixties, the very fact The Beatles received their MBEs in 1965 was headline news. Of course, by that time Beatlemania was in full swing and the group had not yet hit their hedonistic heydays but, nevertheless, the Fab Four becoming official MBE honourees was enough to make the establishment shake. When John Lennon returned his in protest, the very foundations of the country were rumbled.

On October 26th, 1965, The Beatles, dressed in their usual suits, took to Buckingham Palace along with the rest of the award winners from that year’s Birthday Honours. They arrived as the fresh face of Britain’s new post-war charm. While America had bounced back to the fifties, it had taken another decade for the toll of the war effort to feel less imposing and now London’s swinging scene and The Beatles were the new norms in Britain. While it appeared a natural fit for the young Queen Elizabeth to honour the Fab Four, Lennon claimed that it had been Brian Epstein who had talked him into going to the ceremony.

“We thought being offered the MBE was as funny as everyone else thought it was,” Lennon once recalled. “We all met and agreed it was daft…then it all just seemed part of the game we’d agreed to play.” Meeting the Queen is always nerve-wracking but, perhaps because of their newfound confidence, it seemed to matter little to the group. “She said to me, ‘Have you been working hard lately?’ And I couldn’t think what we had been doing so I said, ‘No, we’ve been having a holiday,'” Lennon later recalled. “We’d been recording, but I couldn’t remember.” It was a sign of Lennon’s indifference to not only the Queen or the honour but the whole pomp-laden procession.

Many will attribute Lennon’s quick turn toward the idea of world peace at the end of the sixties to Yoko Ono’s influence on the singer. Within The Beatles Lennon had begun to drift away from the idea of topping the pop charts every year and was now becoming far more interested in his role as an artist rather than a pop star. He became more socially aware and even more determined to give peace a chance. With his soapbox being far bigger and sturdier than the majority of the counterculture movement, it was his voice, calling for peace and unity, which was the loudest. But, in truth, Lennon’s position as leader of a new generation of political voices was always a part of his likely path.

‘All You Need Is Love’ is one song that John Lennon has always been proud of. It’s a simple pop song with a unifying message that not only predates Yoko Ono but sheds light on Lennon’s past. Having struggled to ever respect authority, lacking any leadership from his parents and never finding school interesting beyond his own means, Lennon was always taught to question everything around him. The only thing the singer truly believed in was love and, by extension, peace. Lennon had been talking about the idea of world peace for some time but it was when he met Yoko Ono that he became a bit savvier with how to share it.

After years of struggling to align his values with that of the British government and larger ruling bodies, Lennon decided enough was enough. On November 25th, 1969, the singer called a press conference to announce that he would be returning his MBE as a deliberate act of protest and promotion. It was one of the most inflammatory pieces of television that Lennon was ever a part of — and he once said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

When asked during the press conference why he was returning his honour, the singer replied: “As a protest against violence and war, especially Britain’s involvement in Biafra, which most of the British public aren’t aware of.” The last sentence is the key reason Lennon made such a public showing of returning his MBE. Britain in the late sixties was not exactly blessed with free media. Wildly controlled by the establishment of the day, newspapers and television channels were kept under lock and key with news coverage directed away from Britain’s embarrassing involvements in war.

“All the press, TV and radios, slant all the news on Biafra,” Lennon continued, “All the stuff I learned on Biafra from journalists, off the cuff, folks, is a different story and I began to be ashamed to be British. I’m a patriotic nationalist, Yoko can vouch for that — I’m always talking about Britain invented radar and all the things we’ve done. But, every day, I began to worry a bit more about it. I was gonna send the MBE back anyway, I could’ve done it privately but the press would have found out anyway, you would’ve been here a week later, instead. Less impact.”

Lennon sent back his medal, the one which the band are wearing on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, with a note, a transcription of which you can read below. It was sent directly to both the Prime Minister and her majesty the Queen. He was always determined to ensure that his very public protest was given maximum exposure.

“Your Majesty,

“I am returning my MBE as a 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.”

Ultimately, of course, Lennon’s press conference and public display of discontent did little to affect Britain’s foreign policy. It also left the same people who were furious about The Beatles receiving an award in the first place simply seething with indignation at Lennon’s decision to turn his back on it. What’s more, it labelled Lennon as a political agitator something which would not only hamper him back in Blighty but would trouble him once more as he sought citizenship in America.

It’s often cited as one of John Lennon’s most iconic moments and, looking back it’s, hard to see how today’s stars would have reacted with the same issues at hand. The truth of the matter is, no matter how you feel about The Beatles or John Lennon, one thing cannot be understated, Lennon was a man of values and he was more than willing to stand, fight and die for them.