Lesley Riddoch: Honours system is out of order

Iannucci's creation of Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi. Picture: BBC
Iannucci's creation of Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi. Picture: BBC
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The fuss over Armando Iannucci’s OBE suggests that the giving of gongs needs to be revamped, writes Lesley Riddoch

So the Mockmeister himself is now in the thick of it. “AIannucci joins the Establishment he claims to deride. Malcolm Tucker and I do not approve of the honours system,” tweeted Alastair Campbell after newspapers announced the award of an OBE to comedy writer Armando Iannucci.

The former Labour spin doctor would have needed superhuman self-control to resist taunting his newly “decorated” nemesis. For one thing, Campbell himself resisted several offers of an OBE from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. For another, Campbell has tolerated seven years of embodiment by Malcolm Tucker since the devious, scheming, foul-mouthed character played by Peter Capaldi first hit BBC4 with a blaspheming bang in 2005.

Not surprisingly then, with news of Iannucci’s OBE, the Empire decided to strike back. “Three little letters can have more impact than you realise. Tut, tut,” tweeted Campbell. To which Iannucci replied simply: “WMD.”

“It’s more Establishment to order your army to march into other countries for no reason.”

Of course, Iannucci is absolutely right. Involvement in the disastrous decision to invade Iraq does blunt the force of any moral attack from a leading part of Blair’s spin machine. And yet. Methinks Armando doth protest too much.

Before Campbell weighed in, the creator of I’m Alan Partridge, In the Loop and The Thick of It felt “a bit guilty” accepting the OBE; “I hope it’s not an attempt by the government to stop me because that’s not going to happen.”

Armando, the government probably thinks it doesn’t need to stop you now. After all, you’ve just agreed to become one of their favourite sons, suggesting your blistering attack on a corrupt and inept establishment will now appear to have been one, big, feisty “in” joke all along. The guilty men have all gone. The Tucker era ended with the exit of the last angry Scot – Gordon Brown – and you have now accepted a gong, made TV documentaries about Charles Dickens and will soon be fitted up for The Big Slipper.

Guilty as charged? Maybe not. An OBE is an unusual thing. Armando’s new “status” will be remembered forever by the people impressed with privilege and overlooked by everyone else. Unless he changes letterheads or amends his CV, Armando’s OBE will soon be forgotten, a new The Thick of It series will start filming and this little spat over a medal will seem supremely irrelevant.

So why accept it? Iannucci says it was a matter of being polite: “If you accept any awards or prizes then why not this one? I have accepted honorary degrees and it seems to me bad manners not to.”

Actually, this does ring true. Armando’s fabulous TV satire may lead many to think the Glasgow-born writer must be more anti-establishment than Channel 4’s fearless Mark Thomas, more of a one man government-watchdog than Rory Bremner and more completely un-biddable than Tony Benn. It ain’t so.

Iannucci almost became a priest rather than a comedy writer in his twenties. He voted Lib Dem at the last election and has described the very un-revolutionary Woody Allen as his “all-time comedy hero”. Armando once worked in the BBC Scotland department that produced my old radio programme.. I remember him as smart, talented but also supremely pleasant. Not a man to lead the picket line, clash over guests or rock the boat.

Armando wasn’t an angry young man then and he isn’t an angry middle-aged man now. He’s very observant, socially aware, creative and confident. There’s a world of difference. The Thick of It derided the establishment but – ironically – also helped enliven it. Consuming official government news in the Brown era was as exciting as watching paint dry. But the Machiavellian plots of Tucker, Ollie et al suggested outrageously interesting characters existed behind the wooden smiles and incomprehensible jargon. Oscar Wilde was right. The only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about.

The Thick of It did New Labour no harm at all – just as Yes Minister hardly dented Margaret Thatcher. Sir Humphrey undermined democracy and the Rt Hon Jim Hacker flailed around for almost a decade in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister – during which time the Iron Lady managed to win two general elections. I’ll grant you Gordon Brown wasn’t so lucky.

But I’m not sure The Thick of It was ever meant to be seditious or revolutionary. Therein lay its splendid force. It was not instrumental – it was not created for any ulterior purpose. It was a fabulously well-observed and trenchant characterisation of life at the top in (possibly) any modern democracy – borrowing characters and dilemmas from the particular circumstances of New Labour’s demise. Ironically the series appeared several years after Campbell had left Downing Street and begun editing his diaries (and yes – the final edition is out this week.)

So I wasn’t surprised or overly disappointed that Armando accepted an OBE. He is no class warrior and has never pretended to be. But this whole stooshie proves that the British honours system needs an overhaul. It recognises the famous (at UK level) and the “ordinary” (at local hero level). Talented and much respected Scots tend to live unrecognised by their peers somewhere in between.

The current system honours a disproportionate number of government and council bureaucrats already handsomely rewarded for simply doing their jobs. The “Order of the British Empire” was established more than a century ago and smacks of collusion, co-option and preferment by the Great and Good. Easterhouse housing activist Bob Holman turned down an MBE in the current Honours List – there’s no way of knowing how many others have quietly done the same.

He says: “The royal honours system is designed to promote differences of status. It is made clear that those who are made knights or dames are socially superior to those given CBEs, OBEs or MBEs. But all are socially above those without honours. These imposed differences hinder the co-operation, interaction and fellowship, which are the characteristics of equality. Refusing a royal honour is a small step but one in the right direction.”

If we value people like Bob Holman, we need to devise a system of public recognition he can value.

Perhaps Scotland’s most recent refusnik should be asked to perform precisely that task – before 2014.