Entertaining the great and the good doesn't prove a thing

Click to follow
LISTS OF the great and the good, however compiled, are at best arbitrary and at worst prejudiced. Even the most distinguished group of men and women are unable to disentangle judgement from preconception. So when I read the guest list for "The Lunch of the Century" - the 300 "great achievers" who have been invited to the Mansion House - my immediate reaction was astonishment at the omission of men and women who deserved inclusion.

Robert Winston, the fertility pioneer, not only takes credit for epoch- making scientific breakthrough but also justifies inclusion because of the joy he has brought to thousands of previously childless couples. Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave are the two great actresses of our age. The idea that they should be omitted from a list that includes William Roache (Ken Barlow of Coronation Street) is absurd. The best that can be said of today's Mansion House lunch is that it gives Lord Levene, this year's Lord Mayor of London, the chance to meet celebrities who otherwise would not sign his visitors' book.

There is no objective way of measuring achievement. George Mann - the last English cricket captain to take a team to South Africa before even the MCC reacted against apartheid - is an admirable as well as an amiable fellow. But is he "a great achiever", as compared with anonymous victims of handicap and disability who have struggled to obtain professional qualifications and managed to earn an independent living?

The extraordinary thing about the Lord Mayor's List is the way in which - at least in the categories of great achievement that it celebrates - it is largely the same sort of pantheon that might have been assembled fifty or a hundred years ago. Most of the nominees have enjoyed conventional success. All of them can be guaranteed to accept membership of the hall of fame with due modesty, and to use the proper knife and fork during the celebratory lunch.

The politically incorrect are excluded. Geoffrey Boycott and Ian Botham number among the great cricketers of the last fifty years. They are not on the Lord Mayor's luncheon list. Nor are George Best and Paul Gascoigne, the two flawed geniuses of English football. Sir Bobby Charlton was, of course, invited. There is no doubt that he was a great inside forward. But would he have been on the list were he not known on the Saturday terraces as "the Queen Mother of the Premier League"?

There are some admissions that are objectively absurd. Roy Jenkins's politics are not mine. And I grow increasingly irritated by his grand seigneurial manner. But he is clearly one of the great achievers of our age - chancellor of the exchequer (with almost universal approval of the way he balanced the budget), twice home secretary, president of the European Commission, founder of a new political party and a much-admired biographer. The Queen may well be delighted to discover that a man who has received her hugely exclusive Order of Merit was not invited to join her for lunch, while David Owen (whose every political initiative has turned to dust) was asked to be there.

It is the section headed "Public Service" that really gives the game away. We should all applaud the inclusion of John Fletcher (popular rural postman), John Knight (president of West Sussex Association for the Disabled) and Sister Bridie Dowd (a tireless worker on behalf of the homeless). These are the real "achievers" and we should rejoice that they are there to represent hundreds of other men and women who show a similar devotion to the communities in which they live. But how do we compare their record of service with that of Sir Nicholas Henderson - undoubtedly a distinguished diplomat, but in truth one of a dozen men and women who have worked their way up to a senior post within the Diplomatic Service? And what is it that distinguishes Sir Nigel Wicks (past chairman of the monetary committee in Europe) from numerous other second Permanent Secretaries to the Treasury who occupy the same position? Today's lunch is as artificial as a Miss World competition, and the choice of winners as contrived as the Oscar nominations.

Some of the nominations are positively perverse. Michael Green, chairman of Carlton Communications, is presumably included for his achievement in dumbing down weekday television. The Carlton formula - lifestyle, mild sex and the prurient pursuit of death and disasters - has done more to reduce the standards of broadcasting than even Rupert Murdoch can claim. But even more extraordinary are some of the names that seem to have been conjured out of thin air. No doubt Professor Rodney King, vice-chancellor of Lincolnshire and Humberside, is a distinguished man. But why does he qualify, rather than the dozens of other vice-chancellors who have risen to eminence as polytechnics have been turned into universities?

The only possible answer to the question is that Professor King knew or was known by the selection committee - a group of figures who might have been selected as a collective caricature of the Establishment. They included the former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd; Richard Chartris, Bishop of London; and Dame Sheila Master, a director of the Bank of England.

The Bishop of London will have to answer to the episcopacy and to his conscience about why he regarded neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the Archbishop of York as one of society's great achievers. But with those notable exceptions, the choice that the panel made was in many ways indistinguishable from the decisions that a similar panel might have taken a hundred years ago. Included in the list is Earl Jellicoe, past president of the Royal Geographical Association. His predecessors would have taken credit for Speke's discovery of the source of the Nile and Scott's expedition to the South Pole. Perhaps I do the Earl an injustice, but it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that he is there to make up the numbers.

All that having been said, I consider that the game that will be played at the Mansion House today does no real harm - as long as we remember that it is a game. I still go to sleep selecting the best England cricket team to be made up of men whose names begin with the letter "H". Tonight I shall drop off laughing at an equally pointless exercise.