Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 794-799)

29 APRIL 2004


  Q794 Chairman: I must apologise for the fact that we are running a little late but we wanted to extract what we could from Sir Richard Mottram. We are delighted you have been able to come to help us with this inquiry. You have been thinking and writing and speaking about these matters for an awfully long time. We have the benefit of an article that I see you wrote for The Guardian almost exactly 40 years ago about the honours system, so you bring vast reflection and indeed knowledge to this. I wonder if you would like to say anything by way of introduction and we could ask you some questions.

  Tony Benn: I perhaps could supplement my letter to you by saying I have found my paper to the National Executive Committee. I found it at Easter. It is rather longer than my paper, but the argument is developed at rather greater length. The right to honour people is one that everybody accepts but I think there are four serious defects in the present system. First of all, it is a medieval system. The idea that the Crown rewards people: what nonsense! You only have to listen to the previous witness to realise the Crown has nothing whatever to do with it. But that pretence is maintained. Secondly, it is class-based. On a question I heard about nurses and permanent secretaries: if you are a permanent secretary you get your KCMG but if you are a nurse you will be lucky to get a British Empire medal, even though there is not a British Empire. That is class based; it is medieval class-based. Thirdly, it is secret. I think the Byzantine discussions that take place—I heard about Professor Colin Blakemore and the nature of the argument: Was he blackballed? and so on—would indicate to us: Why on earth was he involved in any way in whether Professor Colin Blakemore should have got whatever it was? A final point is the corruption of patronage. I have to use the words very carefully. James I introduced baronetcies. He sold them for £1,095 to raise money to fight the war in Northern Ireland, in Ulster. That is why every baronet has the red hand of Ulster on his crest. Later they arranged that the eldest son of a baronet would become a knight when he was 21 and that was an added incentive to pay for the baronetcy. When that was removed, the baronets set up their own trade union, the Honourable Society of the Baronetage, to protest that their privileges were being eroded. Lloyd George sold honours for cash: there was a price for every level of honour. The point really about patronage now, the corruption of it, is not just that the people who get it are expected to do something for it, but the number of people who do not get it but hope to get it and do what is expected of them in the hope that they do get it. I will not go into detail, but it is sort of obvious: if at the end of a parliamentary career you wanted a peerage, there would be certain things that would be inadvisable if you wanted it and some things that would be very attractive. I think that is essentially corrupt. If you take other forms of honours: Freedom of the City, voted on by the Council; they do not have Freedom of the City Second Class. Or a PhD; I do not know that any university offers an honorary BA. Trade unions have honorary members. You do not have Nobel Prize Second Class. When somebody does something, you reward them with what you have and I recommend that all decisions should be taken collectively; that is to say, if you want to honour scientists, go to the scientists and ask, "Who is the one you think best?" If you want nurses brought in, go to the Royal College of Nurses for their nominee every year. There should be a single honour only. Nominations should be far wider. I do not see any reason why local authorities should not be free to give somebody Freedom of the City and to recommend that somebody be honoured in a national list. Then there is the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Royal Society itself. MPs should be able to nominate. If you are going to have any political patronage, it is better to have 650 patrons than one, and therefore members should be able to nominate from their constituency, put their nominations on a list and then have a reception in the Palace of Westminster. A Parliamentary Medal is a dangerous thing to mention because Cromwell introduced it. On the other hand, for those who have anxieties about that, the highest honour in the United States is the Congressional Medal. People know that when Congress recognises you, really you have something. But if you want everybody to be a knight, that is another way of doing it. That would deal with the class system by inflation. Or everybody could have a Parliamentary Service Cross or whatever. Then you come to the House of Lords. I know you are not about the House of Lords, but why this idea that you should have to make somebody a lord to put them in. If you are going to have a nominated second chamber—of which I am not in favour—there are two ways of doing it. You could adopt the senate system. After all, as you know, Latin is still used by the clerks of the House of Lords—the agenda is kept in Latin—so there would be nothing wrong about being a senator. Alternatively, there is an old practice, long discontinued, that people can get a writ of attendance to the House of Lords without being peers at all. That used to be done for the law officers—I looked at all that when I was trying to get rid of it. If you want to preserve the original idea of the honours list, let the Queen appoint whoever she wants provided they are limited to her own family and friends, so she could make people a Knight of the Bath, a Knight of the Thistle. That would preserve the tourist attraction of it without maintaining the nonsense that this is anything whatever to do with the honours lists that we now have every year. I hope I have been brief. That is my position.

  Q795 Chairman: You have been splendid. Could I just try one or two things on you? You are not very keen on the royal bit in all this—what you said about the Crown just now—and I notice that in your 1964 article you have a lovely sentence: "By controlling the valve on the Fount of Honour Macmillan was able on retirement to spray his personal staff with a peerage and several knighthoods." I understand what you are saying wonderfully there, but we have had a lot of people write to us in this inquiry, quite ordinary people getting ordinary honours, saying that actually it is the royal bit that they quite like. They love the trip to the Palace; they love the royal association. Your idea of getting a medal from a politician, albeit one who is trumped up, is not quite the same, is it?

  Tony Benn: Well, if you want everybody to go to the Palace OK. As Postmaster General, I used to give British Empire medals to postmistresses who had fought off bandits and been wounded, and they were thrilled, but, of course, because they were only postmistresses they got the BEM whereas the permanent secretary of the post office would get his knighthood. But if people want to go to the Palace, that is a matter about which I would have no feeling. I am a great believer in maintaining ritual so long as it does not impact upon the nature of society, but this is a deeply divisive thing. The very fact that Colin Blakemore did not get whatever it was he expected, upset him very much. I work on the principle that you should just apply for them. I will give you one example about the civil service. I once wanted to appoint an adviser. He was a retired permanent secretary and my permanent secretary said, "You can't have him." I asked why and he said, "Because he's got a G and I have only got a K, and I couldn't have an adviser in my department who is a Knight Grand Cross when I'm only a Knight." It was quite incredible. He really got quite upset about it because of this whole idea that it matters what grade you are and you are treated differently. I do not know how radical the Committee is, but it is back to your old theme, is it not, of the royal prerogative that we have discussed before, in this new context?

  Q796 Chairman: Indeed. Let me try one further thought on you before I ask colleagues to come in. In a sense, we are both in the business of social engineering, are we not?—I mean, philosophically believe in it. There is an argument that goes that the honours system is a very effective instrument of social engineering; that is, you can get people to do all kinds of good public works that they might not otherwise do with this, no doubt unworthy, prospect of some kind of state honour. Should we not exploit this for what it is worth?

  Tony Benn: I do not know whether people work simply for an honour. I would have thought really decent people worked because they believed in it and were recognised. But if you think it is an incentive to do it, well, people do a lot for a little bit of ribbon—you know, just for a ribbon. "Just for a handful of silver he left us, Just for a riband to stick in his coat . . . " you remember that famous poem. So if people do it for that reason . . . But when you talk about social engineering, it is social influence; it is two things often attributed to the left: social engineering to fit people in their class and keep them there and political correctness. If you see a duke and say, "How are you, m'Duc" that is rude. Political correctness began with the honours list.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

  Q797 Mr Prentice: Tony, you follow these things closely. The Prime Minister has been awarded a Congressional Medal. You do not know when he is going to collect it, do you?

  Tony Benn: No. I merely wondered whether it was a sort of American version of a Nobel Peace Prize or something else. But it is the highest medal. Churchill was given a Congressional Medal, as far as I remember. We do give honorary knighthoods to people, of course. Douglas Fairbanks, the actor, was given an honorary knighthood. Whether they like it or not, I do not know.

  Q798 Mr Prentice: I have tried this one on you before, but let me ask you again. You are a right honourable and I am an honourable. Is that fair?

  Tony Benn: The right honourable business is an extraordinary story which I will recite. You cannot be in the Cabinet if you are not a privy councillor. The privy councillor's oath is secret—or was: I published it later. When I was made a minister in '64, they said, "You have to be a privy councillor," and I took the oath. It is a terrible oath: you swear allegiance to the Crown—which we have to do as MPs and you have to do as MPs—and to pledge to protect the Crown from all "foreign prelates, potentates and powers"—it should include the Commission in Brussels and everybody else!—and you promise that if one of your colleagues is disloyal you will go straight to the Queen and say so. I said, "I don't want to say the oath." They said, "In that case, you cannot be in the Government." Then they read me the oath. At the end, I said, "I have never agreed to it," and they said, "You don't have to." I said, "What do you mean?" They said, "We've administered the oath." I never knew until that moment the medical meaning of the administration of the oath: I was injected with an oath; I have it and I cannot get rid of it. If you say, "Is it fair?" of course, it is ludicrous. Maybe this is the social engineering that preserves the tradition that I can talk to other privy councillors on privy councillor terms; that is to say, roughly on the same basis as you talk to lobby correspondents.

  Q799 Mr Prentice: When Ken Clarke was before us, the gist of what he said was that being a privy councillor was an honour better than any other kind of honour that could conceivably be awarded. You obviously disagree with that.

  Tony Benn: It has one merit: you are still "Mr". If you had to be "Sir John" or "Sir Henry" or "Sir Anthony" or something, I would have resented it, but you are still "Mr".

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