The proportion of people turning down honours from the Queen is rising and has more than doubled over the past nine years, a Guardian analysis shows.
Nearly 450 people rejected a knighthood, MBE, OBE or other awards in recognition of their merit, service or bravery from 2011 to this year, according to Cabinet Office figures released under a freedom of information (FoI) request.
While annual rejection figures fluctuate and remain small, experts said in recent years there has been growing awareness of the ills of the British empire and unease around governments using the 700-year-old system to reward political allies and donors.
This year, 68 people rejected offers of awards on the Queen’s birthday and new year honours lists – 2.7% of the total of 2,504 – and the highest number between 2010 and 2020, the FoI request showed.
In 2011, under the first full year of the new Conservative-led government, the proportion of rejections stood at 1.3%, or 25 of the 1,987 offered, down from 2.3% in 2010 under Labour, the last year for which data was obtained.
Prof Kehinde Andrew, from Birmingham University, said there was increasing focus on the history of empire and racism, and the awards’ links to the country’s bloody imperial past. OBE stands for Officer of the Order of the British Empire, while CBE signifies Commander and MBE, Member.
“This leads to more people rejecting honours and seeing them as problematic,” he said. “The bigger story is that thousands of people accept them. Aside from the problematic nature of empire, it doesn’t exist anymore, so why are we handing out orders of the British empire?”
The former Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, the author of And What Do You Do? What the Royal Family Don’t Want You to Know, claimed the honours system had been “corrupted” through its use by political parties “to hand out political favours often in return for political donations”.
“That has devalued the system so people feel it’s less worthy than it used to be,” he said. “The system is becoming less respected as a consequence of its misuse by politicians.”
Following a leaked list of alleged “refuseniks” to the Sunday Times in 2003, it emerged that almost 300 people, including the authors Roald Dahl and Aldous Huxley and the chef Nigella Lawson, had declined an honour from 1951 to 1999 – though the Cabinet Office would not admit whether that was the total figure.
The author JG Ballard, another so-called refusenik, said in 2003: “Thousands of medals are given out in the name of a non-existent empire. It makes us look a laughing stock and encourages deference to the crown.”
The honours nomination and selection process is opaque. Nominees are asked by Downing Street if they will accept in advance of the announcement and are usually able to privately reject the offer.
There has been repeated speculation that the system could be overhauled to eliminate the word “empire” from awards such as the OBE.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “As the figures show, refusal rates for honours remain extremely low. There has been considerable reform to the honours system in the last 25 years to ensure it is inclusive. There are no plans to change the names of any of the orders.”
Gina Martin, a campaigner against upskirting, revealed last week that she rejected an OBE this year due to the enduring “violence and oppression” of the British empire.
She wrote on Twitter: “It would be deeply hypocritical of me to accept this honour while continuing to be vocal in my commitment to anti-racism and understanding the deep and unsettling race issues the British empire has built into the foundation of our country and many others.”
Howard Gayle, Liverpool Football Club’s first black player, who has since campaigned with Show Racism the Red Card, said no to an MBE in 2016 because accepting it risked his ancestors “turning in their graves after how empire and colonialism had enslaved them”.
“This is a decision that I have had to make and there will be others who may feel different and would enjoy the attraction of being a Member of the British Empire and those three letters after their name, but I feel that it would be a betrayal to all of the Africans who have lost their lives, or who have suffered as a result of empire,” he said.
The former Watchdog presenter Lynn Faulds Wood rejected the offer of an MBE, saying the honours system needs to be dragged “into the 21st century”.
She told the BBC: “I’ve changed laws and I’ve helped saved a lot of people’s lives, so maybe I’m deserving of an honour, but I just wouldn’t accept it while we still have party donors donating huge amounts of money and getting an honour.”
The Hillsborough campaigner and academic Prof Phil Scraton rebuffed an MBE, saying successive governments had refused to take seriously the issues raised about the disaster and subsequent cover-up. He added: “I think that many of the people who are involved in offering such honours have been part of that process and I feel very strongly that I could not accept an honour now that these issues have been resolved in the way in which they have.”
Danny Boyle, the director and man behind the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, said he turned down a subsequent honour because he did not want to be seen as considered above the thousands of others involved in staging and planning the event.
“I’m very proud to be an equal citizen, and I think that’s what the opening ceremony was actually about,” he said.
The poet Benjamin Zephaniah rejected an OBE in 2003, dismissing it as a legacy of colonialism and calling for clarity over the shocking circumstances over the death in custody of his cousin, Michael Powell.
“You have lied to us, and you continue to lie to us, and you have poured the working-class dream of a fair, compassionate, caring society down the dirty drain of empire,” he wrote, addressing the former prime minister Tony Blair and the Queen.