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The reason why George Harrison turned down an OBE from the Queen


From eating roast dinners on Sunday to Morris dancing and chasing wheels of cheese down hillsides, the UK has a long and exhaustive list of traditions. One of the more recent of these is the traditions of British musicians turning down honours from the Queen. David Bowie, Paul Weller, Nitin Sawhney, many musicians have refused to accept a knighthood, MBEs and OBEs out of principle, including The Beatles.

The Beatles were awarded MBEs in 1965. John Lennon, a perennial source of controversy, caused an uproar by hitting back at those who criticised the Queen’s decision to honour the Fab Four: “Lots of people who complained about us getting the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war,” Lennon said at the time. “They got them for killing people. We got ours for entertaining. I’d say we deserve ours more.”

However, in 1969, Lennon wrote a letter to the Queen in which he wrote: “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.”

What is a little less known is that Geroge Harrison, writer of ‘Here Comes The Sun’, ‘Something In The Way She Moves’, and ‘Something’, rejected an upgrade of his MBE to an OBE in 2000, just before his death. There’s a lot of speculation as to why Harrison turned down the offer, but, according to journalist Ray Connolly, a personal acquaintance of The Beatles, Harrison felt insulted by the fact that Paul McCartney had been offered a knighthood in 1997 and he hadn’t. “Whoever it was who decided to offer him the OBE and not the knighthood was extraordinarily insensitive,” Connolly said. George would have felt insulted – and with very good reason.”

Personally, I find the idea that Harrison was jealous of McCartney unconvincing. Let’s not forget we’re talking about a man who spent much of his adult life pursuing a life free from material desires. While Lennon made more of a point of advertising his anti-establishment sentiments to the public, Harrison was surely unenthused by the notion of being associated with a monarchy that had overseen Britain’s brutal colonisation of India, a nation which held an important place in his heart.

As he told India Today around the time of his UNICEF benefit concert for Bangladesh in 1971: “Hey, I tell you Mrs Gandhi ought to run England. At last, India has some direction. There aren’t any beggars in the streets, there’s no chaos. I love India because the ancient traditions remain. It’s not mechanical and material like the West. The Gurus and masters are here and it’s possible to raise your God-consciousness.” Now tell me, can you really imagine a man like Harrison obsessing over a knighthood? I think not.

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