Arise Sir Stephen – and honour is satisfied

For a long time it was a moot point whether Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, or Stephen Bubb, head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, would make it first on to the honours list.

Etherington had length of service, gravitas, a longer track record and a diplomatic ability to impress his views on people without falling out with them. He was cautiously even-handed in his treatment of politicians.

Bubb was flamboyant, prepared to be controversial, and willing to make a noise in pursuit of his main theme of increasing public services by the sector. He was an admirer of Tony Blair and New Labour, but also at ease with the Tory-led coalition. And his first act on being knighted was to give an interview to the Times calling for a tax on bankers’ bonuses. 

Those who backed Etherington were vindicated last June when he was made Sir Stuart in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Now, only six months later, Bubb has been knighted in the New Year Honours List. So two men who are often portrayed as rivals are now on a level footing in that sense at least.

Etherington’s main achievement has been the NCVO’s twelve-year-long fostering and taking foward of the Deakin report, which led to the Compact and the new framework for charities in the 2006 Act. Bubb’s has been to cajole and chivvy politicians during his ten years at Acevo into accepting the case, and improving opportunities, for the sector to deliver public services.

But both men would probably be the first to accept that the most significant accolades in the honours list go to the many scores of people all over the country who contribute day by day to the well-being of their communities through their charitable and other voluntary work.

One example, picked almost at random from the 998 people on the list, is Jane Howitt, who since 1988 has given on average 20 hours a week to East Devon Audio-Description Service for blind and partially-sighted people. People like her make for the good society that exists – has always existed – in most parts of the country.

The government is spinning the list as a recognition of contributors to its big society agenda. That’s fine too – but the challenge that faces ministers in the coming year of cuts is to order matters in such a way as not to throw the big society baby out with the deficit bathwater.