When John Lennon returned his MBE to Her Majesty in 1969, he penned an accompanying (and characteristically flippant) note that defused the potential melodrama of the grand gesture. ‘I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing,’ he wrote, ‘against our support of America in Vietnam; and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts’. Brenda’s reaction was not recorded, though Lennon himself later admitted being a Member of the British Empire was something of an embarrassment re his counter-cultural credentials, even if sending the medal back provoked the ire of his Aunt Mimi, who had proudly displayed it on her mantelpiece for the previous four years.
The award was conferred in 1965, officially as recognition of The Beatles as a Great British Export, though prompted by a canny PM (Harold Wilson) with one eye on a forthcoming General Election he hoped would increase his slender majority. Released from the shackles of the ‘mop-top’ straitjacket in 1969, Lennon’s peace campaigning with Yoko Ono and consequent resurgence of the lifelong anti-establishment sentiments that the Fab Four machine had suppressed earned him the enmity of the ruling class. Mocked and reviled in a manner that may come as a surprise to those who only know the posthumous Lennon as a latter-day Saint (successfully promoted by Yoko herself), Lennon’s gesture was the final act of impertinence from the perspective of the set who had enjoyed patting John, Paul, George and Ringo on the head during the Beatlemania era.
What few mentioned at the time of the mortification that greeted Lennon’s rebuttal of the State’s ultimate Kinder Surprise bestowed upon a ‘commoner’ was that the initial award of the MBE to The Beatles in 1965 had been received with equal outrage from the same people. Numerous war veterans and distinguished gentlemen who had spent most of their adult lives expecting such an award would come their way themselves returned their precious MBEs in protest at long-haired young men devaluing the honour. Four years later, the politicised youth culture that had superseded Swinging London demanded Lennon nail his colours to the mast; Lennon momentarily appeased them, though the Radical Left continued to be critical of him unless they received an invite to his Ascot mansion. He eventually realised it was impossible to please all of the people all of the time and stopped trying.
Forty-eight years on, another grand gesture has been made by another former pop star, albeit one whose days as such are but a distant memory only upheld by the minority tuning in to BBC4’s ‘Top of the Pops’ reruns. Bob Geldof has announced he will be returning his Freedom of the City of Dublin award in protest over the perceived failure of Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn and prevent what has been labelled ethnic cleansing in her native Burma (or Myanmar, if you prefer). The de facto Burmese PM had the same Irish honour conferred upon her, along with similar pats on the head bestowed by the likes of London, Oxford, Sheffield and Glasgow – three of which she has subsequently been stripped of. A portrait of her has been removed from the Oxford University College she read politics at and there are now calls for the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1997 to be revoked.
During the long years of her house arrest by the Burmese military (1989 to 2010, on and off), Aung San Suu Kyi was adopted as the poster-girl for political imprisonment and became a beacon around which western virtue signallers rallied in the same way a previous generation had rallied round Nelson Mandela. But the problem with such beacons is that the symbolic halo they acquire blocks out the uncomfortable truth of a warts-and-all human being; she was always a human being, even though the interchangeable nature of such cult figures (from Guevara onwards) means when their feet are exposed as having clay-like qualities, those who turned them into a symbol are as distraught as pubescent girls when they discover their pop idol has got married.
Upon her release, when Aung San Suu Kyi was being feted in the west and the usual suspects were falling over themselves to sing her praises and shower her in awards, the one person from these islands she really wanted to meet was Dave Lee Travis, whose radio shows being broadcast on the World Service had made a difference to her during her house arrest. Yes, DLT – not David Cameron or Theresa May, not even Bob Geldof or bloody Bono or any of the other glorified chuggers emotionally blackmailing the have-nots to donate to endless causes whilst they themselves squirrel their considerable assets away in overseas tax-havens. And now their darling has disappointed them by behaving like the actual politician she is (and in a country where the same military that imprisoned her still carries clout), they’ve suddenly decided she’s up there with Mugabe.
The Mayor of Dublin has responded to Geldof’s stunt by pointing out Sir Bob hasn’t mentioned dispensing with his honorary knighthood from Britain, a nation whose reputation in Ireland as an imperial power of old doesn’t really complement Geldof’s principles. Geldof’s reason for giving back his honour is Aung San Suu Kyi’s indifference to the plight of the persecuted Rohingya people of Myanmar and her failure to act on the refugee crisis as thousands of Rohingya people flee predominantly Buddhist Burma for neighbouring Muslim Bangladesh, even if this isn’t the first time it has happened.
For an incredibly complex situation with an extremely long and winding history in the region, the likes of Geldof and others simplifying and reducing it to basic black & white terms of heroes and villains is both condescending to those involved and betrays an ignorance of the far-from straightforward scenario playing out there. Yes, current events in Burma are not remotely pleasant; but Aung San Suu Kyi never asked to be the human rights sweetheart the west manufactured and her actions of late (or lack of them) demonstrate the dangers in projecting western values onto different cultures as much as Dubya imagining American notions of democracy could be imposed upon Iraq.
© The Editor