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3 July 2024

Mark Haddon: why I turned down an OBE

The author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on why he could not in good conscience accept anything from Rishi Sunak’s government.

By Mark Haddon

On 23 November 2023, I received a letter from the Cabinet Office. Writing “in the strictest confidence” they told me that I had been “recommended to His Majesty The King for the honour of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the New Year Honours List 2024.” Was it “agreeable” to me for the Prime Minister to submit my name to The King for approval?

I’d always said that I’d reject an honour if I was offered one, so I was greatly relieved to find that my resolution didn’t weaken in the event, like a dieter’s in the face of a large bowl of treacle pudding and custard. On the contrary, when I sat down to write a letter in return explaining precisely why the offer was not agreeable to me, I found myself more adamant than before.

I thought about writing about it at the time, on Instagram perhaps, but I recalled those stories of other people who publicly turned down honours and were greeted with a list of other, far more deserving people who had turned them down without making a song and dance about it. (Graham Greene, Dawn French, George Harrison, Nigella Lawson, Prunella Clough, Caryl Churchill… there is a Wikipedia page listing them and it’s long.) I was also quietly proud of my letter as a piece of polemic. But I was moving very slowly through post-Covid head-fog at the time, and it was hard both to take difficult decisions and to write anything justifying them. So I agreed with the people in my life who suggested I be wary of sticking my head above the parapet.

My head is clearer now, and I’ve been thinking about the subject again having watched the last round of honourees on Instagram. More and more I feel that keeping quiet, not making a song and dance, obeying the Cabinet Office’s insistence on the “strictest confidence” is part of a code of behaviour – about what we should and shouldn’t talk about in public – which works almost entirely to the benefit of those in power.

In my reply to the Cabinet Office, I explained:

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I would feel uneasy accepting an honour which presumes an uncritical acceptance of the British Empire as a good thing.

Whilst I realise his involvement is nominal, I do not wish to accept anything either from Rishi Sunak or from any other member of this government. They have, I think, been the least competent, most self-serving and most morally bankrupt government of any I’ve known. They have consistently sought to line their own pockets and the pockets of their friends and have shown a callous disregard for the humanity of many of the most vulnerable members of society, in many cases eagerly demonising them in return for short-term political gain: refugees, benefit claimants, the disabled, the working poor, the unemployed…

I am a republican. There are several reasons for this but I am particularly ill at ease with the idea that one family should, merely by virtue of their birth, be treated as superior to other people who must demonstrate their own inferiority with acts of obeisance in the presence of their supposed betters. How can we believe that all human beings are equal when this inequality, this deference is baked into the very foundation of our society? I could not, as a result, attend an investiture.

More generally, while honours purport simply to be gifts bestowed by the establishment, they also act to make the recipient indebted to that establishment.  I am not a very noisy or a very regular critic of the government, the crown or the state but when I am, I want to be able to speak with complete liberty, free from any accusations of hypocrisy.

I was reasonably confident about my ability to turn down the treacle and custard having done something similar before. When my novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the Commonwealth Prize for First Novel I was asked if I wanted to meet the Queen. The offer was cunningly made at the end of an excellent meal and much fine wine with the judges in the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park. (I remember the Queen Mother had a whole set of Hockney’s wonderful Cavafy etchings – lots of naked boys in bed.) I said I’d think about it and get back to them the following day like I did with all significant decisions (an excellent rule I learnt to adopt in the wake of Curious Incident). I then sent an email not dissimilar to the above letter. I later found out that the offer to meet the Queen was made only because the winner of the Novel Prize, Caryl Phillips, had turned the same offer down and I was a potential stand-in, which eliminated any residual guilt I felt.

The offer of an OBE comes with a few added extras as well, detailed in the accompanying pamphlet, “Receiving an Honour – Important information for recipients”, which might tempt those who are wavering. If you accept – and your acceptance is accepted – you can use the Chapel at St Paul’s Cathedral for baptisms, weddings and memorial services and apply, if you wish, to the College of Arms for a coat of arms.

I have a visceral distaste for pomp and ceremony, for uniforms and rank and exclusive clubs, that reaches back to my schooldays. My father came from a working-class family (his mum worked on the factory floor at Rest Assured Beds, his father in a similar position at Barratt’s Boots and Shoe Works). He became an architect, set up his own practice and decided to send me to a private school because he didn’t have the power to turn back time and send himself there. He would have loved it, much as he loved national service. Join the Combined Cadet Force and you even got to fire a gun. I described it many years ago as like an open prison with really good cultural facilities and have, consequently, never been invited back. The comparison was deliberate. I’ve visited many real prisons over the years, to give talks and run workshops, and there is something in the air that takes me straight back to my schooldays. It’s the acoustics in part: men shouting and the echo of big rooms with very little furniture and no curtains. It’s the smells of sweat and aftershave and boiled vegetables. It’s something else, too, more nebulous but just as potent: suppressed anger and pecking orders written on the air like the lines on a weather map.

At the age of 12 I was beaten for something I didn’t do by a housemaster who was intensely smug about his own actions (“I can justify it because I know that I am right and they are wrong”). Six bleeding buttock wounds was small beer given what some other boys went through at similar schools, but the act itself gave me a profound and life-long scepticism about power and those who wield it. And the aftermath – to my surprise I found that being beaten increased my status with both boys and staff – made me look at the whole system with clearer eyes. I didn’t like what I saw, though it would take me many years to learn the language I needed to articulate that unease, to myself and to others.

Some of the pupils who attended that school, and similar schools, are now running the country, either directly or indirectly. And in doing so they try to replicate the system within which they were educated and within they feel most comfortable. The insularity from the rest of the world. The assumption of superiority. Prefects and fags. Us and them. Character-building punishment and prizes for coming top of the class.

All human beings are equally worthy of dignity and respect. The demand that people in one group should bow and curtsey to a supposedly superior one sticks in my throat and poisons our society. So does every ceremony, uniform and rule that replicates this dynamic. And having made my escape over the wall of the establishment and dodged the searchlights to make it into the safety of the trees, I am not going to accept an award that would mean walking back in through the front door wearing a suit.

None of this is meant as criticism of friends who have accepted honours (not least those who give me excellent scurrilous gossip about the shenanigans at royal weddings, for example). But if they are free to celebrate their awards then those of us who have turned them down should be free to ignore Cabinet Office etiquette. We should tell the world why we chose not to accept – and celebrate our entry into the Salon des Refusés, instead.

[See also: Will Rishi Sunak lose his seat?]

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