New Year Honours: Gongs for the people? Yes, but the big ones go to stars like Parky

List for "unsung heroes" still features ex-aides and famous names

So Parky got one for packing it all in. England coach Brian Ashton for failing to win the rugby world cup. Kylie got one for... well, for being Kylie. And there was even a little something in the New Year honours list for Tony Blair's former spin doctor Tom Kelly, whose moment in the spotlight involved criticising a dead man. So much for the return of the People's Honours.

That was how Gordon Brown portrayed the list yesterday, stressing that it hailed "the often unsung heroes of our cities, towns and villages". This was a conscious echo of John Major in 1993 when he allowed public nominations; and it's true that 599 of this year's 972 awards were modest MBEs, the most that ordinary people can usually expect.

Salvation Army Captain Tracey Palmer was one of several flood heroes among the many charity fundraisers and volunteers. There were a few higher accolades, such as a knighthood for headteacher Alasdair Macdonald for transforming Morpeth School in London's East End.

But attempts by Mr Brown to distance himself from Mr Blair's whiffy attitude to honours collapsed when he reached the name Tom Kelly. One of four Blair aides honoured, the No 10 spokesman for six years became infamous in 2003 for his comments on the suicide of the (unrelated) weapons inspector Dr David Kelly. The scientist, who had doubts about the evidence used to justify war in Iraq, was condemned as "something of a Walter Mitty character". Tactless at best, it was an offensive attack on a defenceless target at worst, yet Mr Kelly is now a Companion of the Order of the Bath.

Seeking to end all suggestions of cash for honours, Mr Brown will change the system in a White Paper next year. This time around he left the decisions to nomination committees, for whom sport and showbiz proved as irresistible as ever.

Singer Kylie Minogue was made an OBE after overcoming cancer, making a comeback and starring in Doctor Who. "I am almost as surprised as I am honoured," she said from Melbourne. Everyone loves Kylie, and the committees traditionally fall for performers who make Britons feel warm and fuzzy. So loveable rogue Leslie Phillips and down-to-earth superstar Julie Walters are CBEs, while twinkly-eyed Des Lynam becomes an OBE. Sir Ian McKellen, who manages to appeal to all by being a superb stage actor, a pantomime dame, a star of Hollywood blockbusters and a campaigner on gay issues, was made a Companion of Honour "for services to drama and equality".

But perhaps the least surprising honour was the knighthood for the stars' best friend, Michael Parkinson, 72. Yesterday he told the BBC's Today show the gong was for clearing off, having just retired from his talk show after 36 years. He also confessed that it would have been a much greater honour to play cricket for his county, saying: "I would have swapped anything for a Yorkshire cap."