The mood music of the honours list

When you read the bi-annual honours lists, names occasionally appear that make you think, hang on a minute – haven’t they got an honour already? And you usually think that because the person is so well-known or has achieved so much that he or she definitely should have had an honour already: the gong is obviously overdue.

A case in point is Michael Brophy, the man who put the Charities Aid Foundation on the map during two decades of campaigning and innovation until he left in 2002. He is appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours and – leaving aside the questions of which troops are now at his command and what empire we’re actually talking about – the recognition is richly deserved.

Without Brophy, we might not have had Gift Aid and payroll giving, and CAF’s worldwide network – there’s a mini-empire there, perhaps – would not exist. The restless energy he displayed at CAF has persisted in his retirement, which has involved some extensive sailing of the oceans and the constant production of new and occasionally wacky ideas for reinvigorating civil society and its finances.

But in the honours list more generally, is there a sense of the subtle downgrading of the staff of big and well-known charities, which have been under a growing political and media cloud in the last year? Usually there’s a chief executive among the knights and the dames, but this time the rank of CBE – in fairly generous numbers, admittedly – is the highest awarded to what you might call the salaried workers.

The knighthoods and damehoods go to other segments of the charity world: to a philanthropist, Roger de Haan, who has given £49m to a range of charitable projects, and to a volunteer – if that’s the right world for Alan Parker, the creator of the Brunswick PR group and chair of  Save the Children during its hugely successful recent years. Dame Penelope Keith is a twofer, recognised for her contribution to both arts and charity.

Once again, there is no question that these honours are clearly merited, as also are the scores of OBEs, MBEs and British Empire medallists appointed for their contribution to their communities and charities around the country –  to the real big society that existed long before it became a political slogan.

Perhaps it is fanciful to suggest that the honours committee, in its selection of the top awards, has picked up the mood music in Westminster – and perhaps in the country more widely – and sent out a subliminal message: more philanthropists and volunteers, please, and rein back on the paid people. But politics moves in mysterious ways.