50 National treasures
A new book by the journalist Quentin Letts lists the people he believes have 'buggered up' Britain. But what about those who've changed things for the better? Simon Carr presents his roll of honour
Saturday 11 October 2008
1 Margaret Thatcher. For all her faults (FAHF), she smashed the consensus of the 1970s, that low, dishonest decade. The administrative class had settled on a job description "to manage the process of decline". She allowed those with talent to rise faster than their years. Her principle was "the many not the few". And for those who hate her – she shut more grammar schools than Tony Crosland.
2 Tim Berners Lee. He invented the world wide web and never tried to patent it. The single biggest invention in a generation might have made him the first trillionaire – but it seems he felt there were more important things in life than money.
3 Mandy Rice Davies. When told by a robed and wigged judge that Lord Astor had denied ever having met her she said: "Well, he would, wouldn't he?" The self-possession of her retort revealed to a whole class of society that they couldn't rely on the respect of their social inferiors any more.
4 Tony Blair. FAHF, he sold Britain into paying for Gordon Brown's amazing talent for public spending. Also, he declared the class war was over. Though hostilities had largely ceased some years before, the country at last believed him.
5 Sid Vicious. Wit, bon viveur, musical revolutionary. A continuing role mode for those who incline that way. Expressed a vigorous strain of the national character. He did it his way.
6 The copywriter for the deodorant ad Odo-Ro-No who came up with the concept of body odour (whispered, "Beee! Ohhh!"). Now, nobody smells like that and Tube journeys are possible.
7 Oz Clarke. The champion oenophile who showed by blind tasting that many cheap wines were as good as labels three times the price.
8 Norman Lamont. Getting us out of the ERM all those years ago started a run of relentless prosperity. We've been singing in our baths for 15 years.
9 The Queen. For 50 years she's never put a foot wrong in public life. Eternally respectable, responsible, knowledgeable. She has adapted slowly to the times and has been much mocked, but she has a grip on the hearts and minds of whole swaths of society.
10 Richard Ingrams. Created a permanent record of Britain's passing impulse to clobber the rich, the famous, the ridiculous. Also realised that Ian Hislop was his successor (that can't have been obvious at the time).
11 Richard Branson. The first popular entrepreneur. Floated his company and bought it back because shareholders just weren't worth it. FAHF, he keeps bigger, fatter concerns on their toes. He gave confidence to young Britons that they didn't have to be strangulated, effete, simpering fops.
12 The people who invented the Access card. It took the waiting out of wanting. The concept worked well for very many years, and may again.
13 Jamie Oliver. Food for the masses, yes. But he also remortgaged his house to pay for the school he'd set up, and didn't tell Mrs Oliver he'd done so. Rare courage.
14 David Dimbleby. Decent, quiet, modest, intelligent, well-mannered, purposeful ... what we used to call a gent. The weekly host of Question Time and role model of English decency in a bear pit of conflicting interests. I'd like my sons to grow up like him. I'd like to grow up like him myself.
15 Guy Ritchie. Indecent, noisy, exuberant celebrant of social types we would veer away from in private life.
16 Jim Slater. Our first well-known asset stripper dismantled under-performing firms and cleared the way for national economic growth.
17 Martha Lane-Fox. Not only did she practically create the fashion for weekend breaks in remote European capitals, she made money out of the internet.
18 Amy Winehouse. At last, someone has given rehab the name it deserves.
19 Princess Margarita. Eldest daughter of King Michael of Romania. She dumped the young Gordon Brown and gave him all that time to spend with politics. He might have become the King of Romania, but he preferred to serve
20 Camilla Batmanghelidjh. Rare it is to find a Bird of Paradise in social work. She twice remortgaged her house to fund her work in Peckham.
21 Basil Edwards. My old English master, the type of teacher they write plays about. At his memorial service, one of his aged contemporaries observed: "He was unconventional, but an inspirational teacher." That "but" said much about the world we have grown out of.
22 Kate Moss. Obviously.
23 Bob Guccione. With no money, no reputation, no contacts, no position and no way to pay the printer, he produced the first issue of Penthouse and created a market for good looking pornography. He also gave Alastair Campbell his first proper job.
24 JK Rowling. Her writing is second-hand rubbish, but the children love it.
25 Jeremy Paxman. The reason we watch Newsnight, when we do.
26 Chris Morris. Where is he now? How we miss The Day Today and Brass Eye. Rumoured to have made a very funny comedy about Islamic suicide bombers. No one dares broadcast it.
27 The landlords of Marylebone High Street. The de Waldens. Who maximise profits by creating the right mix of shops in their freeholds – attracting smaller concerns with lower rents.
28 Damien Hirst. For industrial and commercial innovation. He got away with it.
29 Baroness Scotland. Civil partnerships. Well done!
30 Albert Pierrepoint. The most famous of Britain's executioners campaigned against capital punishment, and eventually won the argument.
31 Anita Roddick. She introduced a new theme into commercial discourse – one that many thought was irrelevant at the time. But ethics quickly became an innovative selling point.
32 Armando Iannuci. The Thick Of It is unprecedented and incomparable. The swearing (by Ian Martin) an entire genre in itself.
33 Gordon Brown (FAHF). His amazing public spending over the past 10 years means we can now get an appointment for an operation in a hospital.
34 David Cameron. We aren't aware of his faults yet, and he has lit up the political scene with freshness, intelligence and decency. No mean feat for a Conservative.
35 Boris. The only politician who attracts voluntary attention. Media and public press into committee rooms to see him. "What's everyone doing here? Pure routine. Prodding forward defence. Nothing to see," he says as we shoulder our way in. He has the first virtue of a democrat: to make government interesting.
36 John Major. Being the third consecutive non-middle class leader of the Conservatives he laid the ground for his successor. He also presided over the economic circumstances thatcreated the possibility of a 15-year economic boom.
37 Sir Norman Foster. Astonishing buildings. Soaring, imaginative, challenging. And if you don't like them – they won't last as long as a Georgian hovel.
38 Tanni Grey-Thompson. Yes, she can.
39 John Cleese (et al). Monty Python changed the way we laughed at things; sketch shows didn't need punchlines any more. Cleese is still funny, though Monty Python isn't.
40 Richard Curtis. Invented a particular form of floppy Englishness that makes us much more attractive to foreigners. One of the moving spirits – and much of the muscle – behind Comic Relief.
41 Dame Helen Mirren. The gentle eroticism. The acting. The parts. The modesty. The bikini.
42 Johnny Wilkinson. In the last moment of a bitterly contested World Cup final, the English fly-half took delivery of the ball behind a ruck and dropped a goal to win the 2003 championship in Sydney. He made us all believe that those stories we were told at school might yet be true.
43 Liz Hurley. This at least needs no explanation.
44 Sacha Baron Cohen. One of the few humourists to put himself in danger to make a joke. It is taking an uninsurable risk to make fun of the American national anthem in front of 10,000 Deep South rodeo-goers.
45 Peter Mandelson. You say "for all his faults". I say, "What faults?" It's impossible to look at him without smiling.
46 Tommy Cooper. So we still know that it isn't, after all, essential to be unkind to be funny.
47 Professor Tymms of Durham University, who produces education statistics that invariably undermine and often contradict official claims.
48 Max Mosley. For true pluck.
49 Banksy. Wit, verve, ingenuity, some physical courage. Art for those of us who don't like art.
50 The parliamentary sketch writers. Adornment to the constitution and vital ingredient of democracy. Would do yet greater work making jokes about the parliamentary process from Baghdad, Kabul or the Duma.
Do you agree with our choice? If not, email us with your Greatest Britons at firstname.lastname@example.org
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