There is, or was, a political party called the Socialist Party of Great Britain, sometimes disparagingly referred to as the Small Party of Good Boys. Its headquarters were in Clapham High Street, in a shop whose window had been bricked up except for a small aperture of about two square feet.
In truth, it must have been a very small party indeed, because I never saw anyone go in or out. But it existed, and occasionally, as if to demonstrate the party's continuing vitality, a member of the SPGB would seat himself in the back row of a public political meeting in the area and heckle very loudly. They were for public ownership, of course, in common with most socialists, but vehemently opposed to any call for nationalisation in the here and now, because it would mean nationalisation by the capitalist state. The main aim of their other-worldly socialism was the abolition of money, and on the only occasion I remember when they themselves organised a public meeting, their call was: "For a moneyless society in Lambeth!" In short, they were utopians.
The SPGB would, I imagine, have been disdainful of any system of honours, whether monarchical or republican. In their ideal world the pursuit of excellence would, I suppose, be simultaneously a means and an end, needing no external reward or recognition. Perhaps they would even dispute the concept of excellence, which presupposes competition, not to mention uncomfortable categories such as best and worst, or first and last.
I dislike our present monarchical system of honours precisely because it is so bound up with a feudal order of precedence whose apex is the monarch and her family. When my father was made a Commander of the British Empire he was informed by the Lord Chamberlain's Office that his place, in any formal procession, was just behind the younger sons of viscounts and just in front of Masters of Lunacy.
Nevertheless, I don't dislike the idea of honours per se, and I see no reason to disparage those who have been decorated, many of whom - well, some of whom at any rate - I can see are, or were, like Alan Bates, among the best at their job. It is simply that I would prefer another system. One that did not depend upon a monarchy, or other blood-soaked relics of feudalism and imperialism. At the risk of sounding utopian myself, and placing myself on the same back bench for hecklers as the comrades of the SPGB, my preferred system of honours would begin with recognition of all those who have worked tirelessly to defend human rights. I shall call it simply the order of humanity, and it will be headed by those tireless lawyers Gareth Peirce and Louise Christian. It will be quite a long list, and I hope to publish it next year.
Who was it that leaked the list of those who have refused honours to the press? The most likely culprit, I think, is the press office at 10 Downing Street. In his zeal to abolish the Lord Chancellor's office, our Prime Minister bizarrely heaps scorn upon it by noting that its holder, on ceremonial occasions, wears women's tights. And so, populist that he is, or wishes to be, Tony Blair may well feel that by refurbishing an honours system, with its quaint titles, he will refurbish his image as a reformer. Actually, by a terrible irony of history, it is the law lords (eg, Lord Steyn, whose admirable F A Mann lecture on Guantanamo Bay must have made the Attorney-General blush) and the House of Lords that we must rely upon to defend our human rights and civil liberties.
Alan Bates was in the first production of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court. I thought then, and I still believe, that he, Kenneth Haigh, Mary Ure and Helena Hughes were the best actors in
the world. They made me love the theatre,
their theatre, and the passion it could arouse. I was astonished to find out a little later that Alan, who played Cliff, was such a modest young man and so bemused by his success. Other people will choose other performances from such a long and splendid career. But the two images that stay in my mind more indelibly than all others were of Alan as Cliff, reading the papers in his underpants in Jimmy Porter's bed-sitting room; and of Alan dancing with Anthony Quinn to the music of Mikis Theodorakis in Zorba the Greek.