There are two upsides to the expected announcement that Lewis Hamilton is to be given a knighthood.
The first is that the most famous Formula 1 driver alive today is being given due recognition in his homeland for his achievements. And not before time: In raw numbers Hamilton is now the most successful F1 driver ever, tying the record for the most world championships won by a single driver (seven) and establishing a new record for most race wins (95). Every one of those wins and titles has come courtesy of British-built cars and engines.
The second upside is that motor sport fans will be spared another round of the predictable annual slew of hand-wringing articles asking why Hamilton hasn’t been knighted yet.
To those who have awaited news of Hamilton’s knighthood with impatience, the possibility he might turn it down might seem preposterous. Yet it is not so far-fetched.
Few people turn down honours such as knighthoods – little more than one in 50 – but the rejection rate is rising. Between 2011 and 2020 it more than doubled from 1.25% to 2.71%. This happened as the number of honours offered rose to over 2,500 last year.
Who turns down such accolades and why? The painter LS Lowry is believed to have declined more honours than anyone, five offers in total, before his death in 1976. Lowry did not want the public intrusion into his private life a formal honour would bring.
It’s hard to imagine Hamilton having similar concerns. With 21 million Instagram followers and counting, he long ago made his peace with the idea of being in the public eye.
Instead Hamilton is increasingly alert to the opportunities offered by a public profile which dwarfs that of his 19 F1 rivals put together. And never more so than in the tumultuous year behind us.
In 2020 he has wielded the power of his profile like never before to focus public attention on racism and champion the cause of diversity. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Hamilton urged Mercedes to dedicate their livery to the ‘end racism’ cause, and he and many of his competitors have ‘taken a knee’ before races.
But some would see this as being incompatible with accepting a knighthood. Such honours are bestowed in the name of the Empire, a racist relic of Britain’s past. Others in Hamilton’s position have declined honours because they do not wish to be associated with the Empire.
Perhaps none have done so more vituperatively than George the Poet, real name George Mpanga, familiar to British Formula 1 fans from his appearances in Sky’s coverage around the time of Hamilton’s second championship victory. Last year Mpanga rejected the offer of an MBE – ‘Member of the British Empire’ – denouncing Britain’s former rule of African countries such as his parents’ native Uganda.
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“Your forefathers grabbed my motherland, pinned her down and took turns,” he said. “They did that every day for a couple hundred years and then left her to treat her own burns. What they did was pure evil and you can’t see it because that was your people.”
Some sportspeople have expressed similar concerns. Four years ago Howard Gayle, the first black footballer to play for reigning Premier League champions Liverpool and a supporter of the ‘Show Racism a Red Card’ initiative, also declined an MBE.
“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,” said Gayle at the time, “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.”
Hamilton became an MBE in 2008 and has not previously indicated he shares similar concerns to Mpanga and Gayle. His response last month when asked whether he would accept a knighthood showed he does not associate it with the Empire.
“I would never, ever turn down the royal family,” Hamilton said. “I’ve grown up in the UK and [I’m] an avid fan of them.” Being knighted would be “an incredible honour” he added. “There’s no greater honour, I think, than your country recognising you with such an award.”
But views can change, Hamilton says he is educating himself on issues around racism, and accepting honours is not final. Just yesterday one former recipient returned theirs, albeit for reasons unrelated to Empire.
It would be simplistic to assert that because others who share similar convictions to Hamilton have declined honours, he therefore must do the same. Whether Hamilton should accept a knighthood for any reason is a matter for him alone to decide and not for anyone else to dictate.
As the sole black competitor in the sport, for Hamilton to have scaled the heights he has and then accept a knighthood in the name of the British Empire may be regarded as the ultimate repudiation of the racist values it represented.
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