Chris Bryant: Why do civil servants still get honours when so many exceptional people don't?

A Political Life

Chris Bryant
Friday 25 May 2012 20:08

On Wednesday evening, there was a little gathering of family and friends of all political parties on the (sweltering) Terrace at the Commons. Karen Pollock had been to the Palace to receive her MBE from the Princess Royal for her work as chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust. It's a great organisation, notwithstanding David Cameron having once referred to the Labour government's funding of it as "a gimmick".

Teenagers from schools across the country travel to Poland to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and get to feel history in the raw. When I went with six youngsters from the Rhondda, they were so moved by the railroad that stops in the middle of the compound, by the miles of barbed wire fencing, by the vast mass of hair gathered by the Nazis from their Jewish, Roma and gay victims, by the mountain of abandoned personal effects, by the thought of those who were forced to co-operate in their compatriots' murders, and by the short, informal act of remembrance at the top of the steps down to one of the gas chambers, that the flight back to Cardiff airport was uncannily silent. And when they told the story back at school, I gather that some of the other pupils wept.

So Karen's work is precisely the kind of thing that the honours system should be there to reward: imagination beyond the call of duty, charitable endeavour, courage, talent honed by hard work. And doubtless many others will be rewarded in a bumper Queen's Birthday Honours list next week. But despite attempts to refocus the honours system, it still rewards too many people who have already been rewarded many times over. The list of civil servants who get a gong for just doing their job, or top brass who get an extra promotion in the form of a civil honour, is still far too long. Gus O'Donnell, now a peer, for instance, is on his fourth honour. It's even worse in the Foreign Office, where an annual quota of such awards is doled out to gleaming diplomats, all in the ludicrous belief that a knighted ambassador or a first secretary with an OBE somehow impresses the natives. If anything, both it and our retention of lords in the legislature make us seem crazily archaic and class-bound. After all, the most recent Spanish ambassador, Carles Casajuana, was no less impressive or effective for not being a count or a marquess as were two of his predecessors.

The true heroes of the House

There are rumours that the Prime Minister wants to reward more MPs as well. He is said to have set up a committee expressly to consider doling out four knighthoods and 20 other honours to MPs and staff of the House. We all reckon that Michael Ellis, the Tory barrister turned MP who organised the new Jubilee window in Westminster Hall, is a shoo-in for at least the Membership of the Victorian Order, but if anyone in Parliament is to get a gong, my personal favourites would be the people the public will never have heard of but keep the place running with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of good cheer, especially those who do so on very modest pay.

The dismal sequel of Putin III

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister declared himself pleased that the Russians had signed up to an international statement on Syria, but I still worry about Russia. After all, only last week, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were denied the right of appeal over their second trial, even though it has been condemned by virtually every international human rights organisation and was even criticised by Dmitry Medvedev's Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which found no valid legal basis or evidence supporting the guilty verdict, and called for their release.

The most worrying element, though, was the fact that the judge deciding it was Alexander Voronov, a member of the military tribunal, and his decision was not announced in a conventional way, but published on the website of the Russian armed forces. All of which suggests that Putin (Mark III) is going to be even worse than his two previous bouts as president. Every politician, even one like Putin, has to have an exit plan – and there's the danger. For no commentator I have yet met can conceive of a voluntary exit for Putin, largely because kleptocrats, when out of office, have a habit of ending up in jail and he'll do anything to avoid tasting his own medicine.

Eurovision's camp glamour

I know I should escape the gay stereotype, but tonight is the Eurovision Song Contest, which I attended in Birmingham in 1998. It was an eventful night. Our train from London broke down (squirrels were blamed), so when we arrived rather late at New Street, newly elected fresh-faced Stephen Twigg ran to the front of the taxi queue and asked, "Are you going to the Eurovision Song Contest?", only to be greeted with a surly Brummie reply: "No, I've got a life." Then one of the presenters, Ulrika Jonsson, delivered one of the best live faux pas in TV history. Conny Vandenbos came on to announce the results of the Dutch votes and started by wishing all the contestants well, pointing out that she too had sung for her country. Without thinking (and without malice), Ulrika replied, "A long time ago, was it?" The audience was uncontrollable for several minutes as Ulrika desperately tried to explain herself.

The final moments of the show were particularly intense in my row as I was sitting next to the father of the UK entry, Imaani, who came second, just five points behind Dana International. Imaani's poor old dad simply refused to believe that Dana International was a transsexual. Mind you, Dana confused the BBC director-general John Birt as well. On kissing her at the after-show party, Birt said, "I've never kissed a transsexual before." To which Dana replied, "Are you sure?"


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