The true story of why John Lennon returned his MBE

26 November 2019, 12:00 | Updated: 26 November 2019, 17:27

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr proudly display their MBE medals after their investiture at the Palace. 1965
Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr proudly display their MBE medals after their investiture at the Palace. 1965. Picture: Northcliffe Collection/ANL/Shutterstock

George The Poet has been quite blunt in refusing an MBE, citing "colonial trauma" over the behaviour of the British Empire... but he's not the first artist to turn down the honour.

Spoken word artist George The Poet has revealed that he's turned down the offer of an MBE from The Queen, claiming that as a person of Ugandan heritage, he can't overlook the "colonial trauma" that the Empire inflicted on African countries.

He noted that accepting the title of Member Of The British Empire "will remain unacceptable to me until Britain takes institutional measures to address inter-generational disruption brought to millions as a result of her colonial exploits."

George The Poet isn't the first musician or artist to turn down an honour from Her Majesty, of course - far from it.

David Bowie turned down both a CBE and a Knighthood, his old comrade Brian Eno and the Modfather Paul Weller both turned down CBEs and Trainspotting director Danny Boyle said no to becoming Sir Danny.

But there was one famous musician who accepted an MBE - and then sent it back.

Beatles singer John Lennon with wife Yoko Ono at Apple headquarters as he sends his MBE back to The Queen, 25 November 1969
Beatles singer John Lennon with wife Yoko Ono at Apple headquarters as he sends his MBE back to The Queen, 25 November 1969. Picture: WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

All four Beatles were made Members Of The British Empire in 1965 for services to British industry. The Fab Four had brought millions into the British economy - but some commentators cynically suggested that the move was more of a PR stunt by the then-current Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to earn favour with younger voters.

Ringo Starr was happy to accept the award, which was announced in June of 1965 as the band were putting this finishing touches to their album and film Help! He later said: "I had no problem with it - none of us had any problems with it in the beginning. We all thought it was really thrilling."

The Beatles outside Buckingham Palace, London, after receiving their MBEs
The Beatles outside Buckingham Palace, London, after receiving their MBEs. Picture: Fox Photos/Getty Images

However, the news was greeted with anger in some quarters from people who though that giving the MBE to a mere "pop group" trivialised the honour. Many of those who had received the MBE for their military service returned their medals in protest, leading John Lennon to comment: “They got them for killing people. We got ours for entertaining. I’d say we deserve ours more.”

The Beatles went to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs from Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II on 26 October 1965. Lennon remembered: "We were giggling like crazy because we had just smoked a joint in the loos of Buckingham Palace. We were so nervous."

Fans outside Buckinham Palace as The Beatles receive their MBEs, 26 October 1965
Fans outside Buckinham Palace as The Beatles receive their MBEs, 26 October 1965. Picture: Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

George Harrison later claimed that Lennon was making this up - they'd merely had a regular cigarette in the toilets to calm their nerves, but unusually for Lennon, the Beatle was a bit flustered when meeting The Queen.

"She said to me, ‘Have you been working hard recently?’" he told reporters. "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 gave his medal to his Aunt Mimi, who put it on her mantlepiece. And - apart from The Beatles wearing their medals on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - there it remained... until 1969.

Beatles singer John Lennon with wife Yoko Ono at Apple headquarters as he sends his MBE back to The Queen.
Beatles singer John Lennon with wife Yoko Ono at Apple headquarters as he sends his MBE back to The Queen. Picture: WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Lennon had been uneasy accepting an honour from the Queen in the first place and by the end of the decade, he was even more opposed to being endorsed by the establishment.

His relationship with Yoko Ono had garnered criticism from the public, he'd been busted by police over an alleged drug offence and ridiculed in the press for his post-wedding "bed-in", in which he and Ono held a press conference in their honeymoon suite.

The "bed-in" was all part of John and Yoko's campaign for peace, started in response to the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. At the same time, the British government supported the Nigerian government in a civil war, which saw the unrecognised state of Biafra attacked and driven to famine in a bloody conflict that intensified across the summer of 1969.

A group of emaciated children during the civil war in Biafra, 1970
A group of emaciated children during the civil war in Biafra, 1970. Picture: Romano Cagnoni/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On 25 November 1969, John Lennon decided to make a statement. He returned to his Aunt Mimi's bungalow in Bournemouth, took the MBE medal from her mantlepiece and returned to his office at Apple's HQ in Saville Row, London.

He typed a letter addressed to The Queen on notepaper headed "Bag Productions" - Lennon and Yoko's new company. He wrote:

"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"

English model and actress Jean Shrimpton joins a group of anti-war protestors campaigning to end the killing of civilians in Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, 24 December 1969
English model and actress Jean Shrimpton joins a group of anti-war protestors campaigning to end the killing of civilians in Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, 24 December 1969. Picture: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lennon's chauffeur Les Anthony was dispatched with the letter and the medal to Buckingham Palace and sent a copy of the letter to PM Harold Wilson for good measure. The star later regretted his flippant mention of his then-hit solo single Cold Turkey, feeling it devalued his statement, but that was John Lennon.

Lennon's MBE medal remained in the vault of the Chancery Department of the Royal Household and was discovered again in 2009, some 40 years after it was returned. However, according Gov,uk, while people can be stripped of their honours for misdemeanours, "An individual may decide to renounce their honour voluntarily" but that they "would still hold the honour unless or until HM Queen annulled it." In short, John Winston Ono Lennon MBE was still his official name when he died in 1980.

Sir Paul McCartney and his wife Nancy Shevell following an Investiture ceremony, where he was made a Companion of Honour at Buckingham Palace on May 4, 2018
Sir Paul McCartney and his wife Nancy Shevell following an Investiture ceremony, where he was made a Companion of Honour at Buckingham Palace on May 4, 2018. Picture: Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The other three Beatles kept their MBEs: in 1997 Paul McCartney was knighted for services to music; Ringo Starr received the same honour in 2018. George Harrison said no to an OBE in 2000 because he reportedly thought he should have been knighted like his bandmate Sir Paul. He died the following year.

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