Simon Kelner: The badge of honour that is refusing a royal gong

Click to follow
The Independent Online

All around us, we see the evidence that we are a much more open society than we were, say, 20 years ago. It is in the everyday things, like, for instance, the information we are given on public transport.

Yesterday, my Tube train stopped in a tunnel, and immediately the guard was on the public address system: "I'm sorry," he said, "but we're waiting for the train in front to clear. We shouldn't be waiting longer than a minute." That simply wouldn't have happened two decades ago. Keeping people in the dark? That's so last century. (This has its drawbacks, too. Nowadays, you get so much information broadcast in the course of a mainline train journey that it feels less like a public service, more like a radio station.)

But these are just the systole manifestations of a change in society, which ran alongside the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in 2005. In the past, we deferred to those who governed us, trusting them to act always in the public interest. Today, we know better, because we know more. We now know how much almost everyone in public life earns, how much the director-general of the BBC spends on lunch, who's invited for dinner by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and – significantly, as it turns out – the amount of hospitality senior policemen have enjoyed in the company of journalists.

All this openness undoubtedly makes us much healthier as a society, and although the Freedom of Information Act is imperfect – authorities are still capable of refusing a request, and obfuscating in a response, and the system is prey to frivolous requests (a demand to know the number of eligible bachelors in the Hampshire Police force is a famous one) – it sets the tone for our civic exchanges. It can take time, but it's usually worth it in the end.

Which brings us to yesterday's release by the Cabinet Office – after a 15-month battle – of the details of everyone who has turned down an honour over the past 40 years. This information was considered so secret that it wasn't even made public when other government documents were opened up under the 30-year rule, but there they are now, the 277 people who said no thanks to Her Majesty. The only caveat on the list was that the refuseniks weren't still alive, but it made fascinating reading nevertheless.

Accepting an honour is, of course, a matter of personal conscience, but I have always felt a little queasy about artists accepting a gong. I think that an artist should operate outside the establishment, and while it is clearly possible to maintain artistic integrity with three capital letters after your name, I can't help feeling that a maverick edge runs the risk of being blunted by a trip to the Palace.

I have written before about my attachment to L S Lowry – which is more than geographical – but, on learning that he'd turned down an honour on five separate occasions, I was able to elevate him even higher in my pantheon of heroes. Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Roald Dahl and JB Priestley evidently felt the same as Lowry. And so, we see, did the quiz show host, Hughie Green. Now all we need to know is his reasons!