Sky Views: Here's to five public servants who wanted to make life better

Adam Boulton, editor-at-large

There is no name for this period of a week or so between Christmas and the New Year but it is still one of my favourite times of the year.

Buzzfeed asked for suggestions what to call it and suggestions included Witching Week (because nothing you do really matters), Crimbo Limbo and, drawing on anatomy and lingerie respectively, perineum and gusset – basically the bit between the back and the front.

You can look those last two up if you are interested. That’s what Google’s for. For me the anonymity of these few days is part of their charm. We are in limbo between the old year and the new. Many places of work or study are shut. We may still be on holiday or away from home but the celebrations are mostly over. We have some time to think about the year gone by and the year to come.

In this country, it is dark and cold and nature is in hibernation. It’s melancholy but also rather thrilling.

Perhaps because it just happens to you more as you grow older, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the people we’ve lost in 2018. Of course members of my close family and friends have died and are missed, but that’s private.

Here, I want to remember five people who I got to know in my working life and who were public figures – each of whom I think is an inspiration for those of us who remain.

Strangely, all of them succumbed to some form of cancer. All but one of them ended their lives as members of the House of Lords. The exception, Philip Bassett, was married to Baroness Symons and worked for years as chief aide to the Labour leader in the Lords.

Paddy Ashdown’s death last week was a shock. He was a spry 77, a former Special Forces officer known to many of his colleagues as “Action Man”.

Ashdown felt he had to give up a career as a diplomat and go into politics to make things better – for the country and its people. Through sheer determination and hard work as Liberal Democrat leader for a decade, he transformed his party into the credible third force ready to play its part in a coalition government.

Jeremy Heywood’s term as cabinet secretary was cut off by illness. His funeral in the Henry VII chapel of Westminster Abbey was attended by three prime ministers and what one cabinet minister described as the cream of the liberal establishment.

Jeremy served both Conservative and Labour administrations with subtlety and humour and even found time to talk with journalists with a smile, though without ever giving anything he shouldn’t away.

Peter Mond, 4th Baron Melchett, was the longest serving executive director of Greenpeace UK. He is perhaps best remembered for the numerous direct action campaigns he was associated with, including standing trial for the destruction of genetically modified crops.

He was also arrested for cutting the wire around a US base in East Anglia. As a young man he served in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, including as a Northern Ireland minister. He also chaired the Royal Commission on Pop Concerts which made events like Glastonbury possible. On his family estate in Norfolk he pioneered organic farming and public right of access.

Philip Bassett was an irascible and highly intellectual journalist from the North East. He was an industrial and Labour correspondent for the Times and the Financial Times in the era of strikes when Labour correspondents were the kings of Fleet Street. Before his stint making sure Labour Lords didn’t make too much of a hash of things, Phil crossed the line to work for new Labour, helping to write some of Tony Blair’s best known speeches and articles.

Tessa Jowell was the best loved minister of the New Labour years. She was tireless and persistent with the many causes her compassion led her to take on.

She was an enthusiast who loved fun as well. Without her the London 2012 Olympics would not have happened.

Each of these people had families and children who mourn them. My dealings with them sometimes came to mix the professional and the personal but that was never a problem for them, or for me.

I often question the competence or disinterestedness of the people I report on in political life. In their own ways however, each of these five were dedicated public servants, willing to make sacrifices themselves in an attempt to make things better, as they saw it, for the rest of us.

In their lives they did not go unrewarded, as their honours show, but I do not believe that that was what motivated them in their work.

They are missed but they are not the only ones. There are still many dedicated public servants in Westminster. They just seem fewer and further between – but perhaps that’s because I’m getting old too.

Paddy, Jeremy, Pete, Phil and Tessa are all worth a pause for reflection at this inbetweener time between 2018 and 2019.

Happy New Year.

Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.

Previously on Sky Views: Sophy Ridge – What price the life of a woman?

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