Examination of Witnesses (Questions 330-339)|
26 FEBRUARY 2004
Q330 Chairman: Welcome to our second
set of witnesses for the morning. We are delighted to have Yasmin
Alibhai-Brown, distinguished columnist/writer, commentator on
all kinds of things, and John Lidstone, who has given a good deal
of thought to the honours system, and we have read some of your
stuff. We all thought that you might have something between you
to contribute to our thinking on these matters. I wonder if either
of you would like to say something to kick us off?
Mr Lidstone: Shall I try and give
you the background from which my whole thinking about the honours
system derives? As a small child I found myself invited with a
group of relations to Lloyd George's estate in Churt. When you
are a small child everything is big so it did not register too
much but I noticed that it was fairly lavish in every department
and, of course, much later, when I was aware of Maundy Gregory's
brokerage which led to Lloyd George pocketing £1,500,000
into his back pocket, quite apart from what went into the Liberal
Party, I understood then how he could afford to live in such style.
That was my first experience. My second was about my sister who
was in Hut 13 at Bletchley Park during the war, a fairly intelligent
young woman. She was involved very much in the Enigma plotting
of the disposition of U-boats and things like, along with many
others. Three weeks before one new year her boss came in and said,
"I have seven OBEs to give to this department and all of
you are equally worthy of that honour, so I am going to put your
names in a hat". That only came out in some papers of my
sister, who died last year. That intrigued me enormously, that
honours could be so distributed. Thirdly, when I retired in 1989
from my full time work, I was on what was called a great and good
list, and I was asked if I would take the position of chairman
of a regional health authority in the southern part of England.
I was told that it would be non-executive, which in my opinion
meant one day a month, but it turned out to be three days a week
with an honorarium of £10,000 a year and a chauffeur, and
then, to cap it, the man talking to me in the honours unit said,
"At the end of it you will get a CBE". I thought, "That
is interesting. This is another little flavour of the way honours
are disposed of". Then I come to the eighties when Margaret
Thatcher was in power and I got to know a lot of businessmen at
the top of the tree, and one of them suddenly appeared with a
knighthood in the new year's honours list. I said, "What
have you done to justify that?", and in a cynical wayand
I knew him well enough that he could be honest with mehe
said, "40,000 quid's worth of my company's money bought that,
and I am not alone, of course", as many of the other businessmen
who have done it have revealed. I think we almost need a business
scrutiny committee, let alone a political honours scrutiny committee.
Those are, if you like, the background factors that led me to
be very curious about this whole honours system or, as I have
put it in my paper, dishonourable system, because it never was
Q331 Chairman: That is very useful. I
will pause there because we will move on to what we are going
to do about it, which you have got some thoughts about. Perhaps
we could in similar vein move to Yasmin who can tell us her own
thoughts on this from her own recent experience.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: A dishonourable
record of a dishonourable system, I fear. When Benjamin Zephaniah
kicked up the stink he did as a result of the Sunday Times
revelations, I returned my MBE, which I should never have taken
anyway. It was originally a huge act of personal cowardice really.
Of course, the older generation of migrants, for whom life has
been so tough, and we are now entering another phase where yet
again as immigrants we have to justify our existence in this country,
for them it is a mark of reassurance. For my mother it was that
we would not be deported, because she was so worried that I am
such a controversial figure that, having been thrown out of Uganda,
we were going to be thrown out of here. This used to be her nightmare.
There were odd reasons for taking it therefore. But when Benjamin
Zephaniah did what he did, several things happened to quite a
lot of us who were ex-members of the Empire, if you like, that
in a sense we had colluded in something we did not agree with
in spite of being unhappy for a number of reasons, not just because
of the word "Empire", which I will come to in a minute.
When you come to this country you realise that people never use
the word "corrupt" and "lies" about anything
that happens in Great Britain. That is only what natives in other
parts of the world do, but really what has been described even
as I have been listening is a level of corruption. I know someone
who made a calculation six years ago that he would pay this amount
of money and get his first honour, which he did, and then he would
pay this amount of money and get something else, and he would
finally be knighted. It was a game plan and it is a game plan
he is pursuing extremely successfully, until he gets his final
prize, as he does all his other business ventures. There is this
whole problem of what is the meaning of an honour, how is it bestowed?
And why? The other moment of grave embarrassment for me is that
I am a passionate republican and it felt very odd indeed that
there was no way of receiving this honour, even if I had finally
persuaded myself that it was the right thing to do, without playing
into the whole monarchist symbolism. It was very interesting that
when I got my MBE there were three of us getting honours from
so-called ethnic minority backgrounds. All three of us were in
anguish about this. All three of us then made a decision collectively
that we could not possibly curtsey. All three of us plotted in
the loo that we would then do this, which was the Indian greeting,
and get away with it, so it is a messy business.
Q332 Chairman: Wonderful, but, notwithstanding
all of that, my understanding is that both of you think an honours
system in principle is not a bad idea.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: No.
Mr Lidstone: If you look at every
form of country and tribe there is evidence that people want to
honour their own who have done deeds of valour and other things
that have contributed to society, and that seems to me wholly
admirable to do that. If you get rid of that you then have a plethora
of all the rather second-rate gong award systems that are growing
up in this country anyway. Yes, I agree that there is a place
for honouring the great who have done great deeds of valour and
great deeds in civil life, but they need to be seen to be great
as well as being great. Look at yesterday's George Crossthe
Queen's Admiral who read out the citation. We all knew about it.
We do not see any citations about half the honours that are given
and the public says yes to that.
Q333 Chairman: I was thinking, listening
to Yasmin just now, that a lot of the evidence that we have had
from people writing in to us is that they rather like the royal
bit of it.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes. It is like
a marriage, is it not? Some of us want to get married with religious
ceremony; some of us do not. People should be given that choice
and we could have a secular ceremony, if you like. I passionately
feel that if we are changing from a class-ridden country to a
true meritocracy it is very important to have your country recognise
you. I feel that is a deeply important thing, but we do have to
change the way we do it and what we call it.
Q334 Chairman: But even your friend,
if indeed he is a friend, who goes out and plans to receive honours
periodically, you may say that that is one of the functions of
the honours system, to get people to do good civic deeds that
they might not otherwise do with the prospect of some honorific
reward. If that is an effective instrument of social engineering
why do we not use it?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: I do not think
he is giving his money to charity. I think he is giving his money
to a political party. That is another very important issue: are
we rewarding people for being nice to particular political parties
or should we now move to honour people who are doing something
for our nation? The two are not one, obviously. There is again
a very big confusion about that.
Q335 Chairman: Just to get us going,
John, would you tell us in a nutshell what you think is the key
approach to reform in this area?
Mr Lidstone: First of all, it
seemed to me when I looked into the bowels of this problem, which
derived, as you know, from a letter I wrote to The Times
(and I had an enormous response from it) that it has to be removed
totallyand this is where I disagree with Lord Thomson's
view earlierfrom the hands of politicians. There must never
be a political influence. The Prime Minister's list is venal and
it has to be taken away from there. If we continue to have a monarchy,
although it be in the form it is, at least let that honours system
that we have, which is passed off as being from her "fount
of honour" and which it is not mostly, start to come from
that monarchy and then set up people of independent judgment,
again, the Civil Service, people from medicine and so on. All
these different departments could have their own methodologies
of putting forward people to a committee of independent people
who would then advise the Queen on a list, which incidentally
would become by the recommendation I have in mind a much smaller
one. That would be the start of it. You would argue how you go
about the task of picking the sort of people who would have the
sort of independent judgment that you would need to remove from
it the bias that seems to me to exist at the present time. That
is not difficult, but that would be my starting point.
Q336 Chairman: All the evidence that
we have taken, and indeed you heard it from Lord Thomson this
morning, from those who have had close contact with this system
tells us how meticulous and fair, notwithstanding the Blakemore
case, the people engaged in this at the moment are, the extraordinary
lengths they go to in order to make these very fine and difficult
subjective judgments. Why would getting a committee of the great
and good do this any better?
Mr Lidstone: You say that the
Civil Service is meticulous in its approach to this matter and
Lord Thomson referred to it as well. They are meticulous in applying
the template. They have a template for most of the things they
do, as was mentioned by Mr Liddell-Grainger.
Q337 Chairman: In terms of distribution
and so on?
Mr Lidstone: There is a whole
distribution system, a quota system. You also haveand this
has come out quite recently and it disturbs me not a littlethe
fact that the honours system has now become an instrument of political
policy. The Prime Minister wants to push education, he wants to
push the National Health Service, he wants to push this, that
and t'other, and so the honours system flows behind that, and
that is another very disgraceful development of this system which
has been manipulated.
Q338 Brian White: It has always been
Mr Lidstone: I know it has always
been done but I do not think it is to be applauded for that. Do
Q339 Chairman: I am not sure quite what
Mr Lidstone: In a sense we are
corralling the Civil Service into being an instrument of that
policy if we are not careful. You say that the Civil Service is
meticulous. Yes, it is, but it is meticulous in applying what
is almost an idiot's guide to the system.