Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 800-819)

29 APRIL 2004


  Q800 Mr Prentice: I am not trying to paint you into a corner here but have you ever thought about renouncing your privy councillorship in the way that, all those decades ago, you renounced your claim to the peerage, to make a political point?

  Tony Benn: I am sorry, I did not quite catch that.

  Q801 Mr Prentice: Have you ever thought of renouncing, if it is possible to do this, your membership of the Privy Council to illustrate the point you have just made, in the same way that you renounced the peerage?

  Tony Benn: I have thought of everything, but the reason I am not doing it is because I would like to live to see it meet. I have been on it since '64 and it has never met. It only meets on the demise of the Crown. The demise of the Crown is a very interesting occasion because the declaration of the succession is signed by the Privy Council. It says: "We, with one heart and mind and voice, proclaim that . . . " Prince Charles is King. One heart, mind and voice is what is known as the unanimity rule, so if I wrote "No," the Crown would not be proclaimed. I have written to the Privy Council about this and they have said, "Actually it does not count because all we are doing is stating a truth" but I still have a feeling my taxi will be sabotaged on the way to St James's Palace! So I retain it on the grounds that it is an element of republican aspiration that is entirely peaceful and constitutional that I might be able to exercise. But, otherwise, you are quite right, it is not worth having.

  Q802 Chairman: Could we pause while the bells are ringing. (Short pause)

  Tony Benn: Could I leave with the Committee the document I mentioned, the one I said I could not find.

  Q803 Chairman: Yes. It is a memorandum for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in . . . ?

  Tony Benn: 1964, the year we took office. It was an example of possible modernisation.

  Q804 Chairman: Despite your renowned filing system, you could not immediately find it!

  Tony Benn: I had to go to my files.

  Chairman: But now you have located it.

  Q805 Mr Prentice: We are all interested in how and why people are honoured. That is why we are having this inquiry. You told us it is impossible to serve in the Cabinet unless you become privy councillors, that ministers at minister of state level can become privy councillors. Could I ask you to comment on this. I am not going into the realm of personalities here—I do not want you to think that, because I am not—but we have the present chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Jean Corston, who has never been a minister, who is a privy councillor, she is a right honourable, but her predecessor, Clive Soley, who again was never a minister and served as chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party for many years, is not a privy councillor. I am trying to get my head round it. What is it that distinguishes those two excellent colleagues, neither of whom have been members of the Labour Government since 1997?

  Tony Benn: You do not even have to be a member of parliament to be a privy councillor.

  Q806 Mr Prentice: I understand that.

  Tony Benn: I think Len Murray, the General Secretary of the TUC was made a privy councillor. In a sense, apart from the automaticity required of Cabinet membership, the rest of it is discretionary. It is an honour that can be awarded to anybody. Of course, some members and chairmen of the Parliamentary Party, such as Jack Dormand, have become peers but some were not made peers. It is like all honours, purely discretionary.

  Q807 Mr Prentice: Another manifestation of prime ministerial patronage, that is what we are talking about.

  Tony Benn: Yes, it is an example. It may be the prime minister wants to be able to talk to the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party on privy councillor terms. I have always found that "privy councillor terms" business a little bit suspicious: it is the conspiracy of the powerful against their own party, so I have doubts about it.

  Q808 Mr Hopkins: I have a great deal of sympathy with everything you have said, Tony. In fact, I sometimes think we could even go further and suggest the complete abolition of the honours system, but I know my "leveller" tendencies and sympathies would not be shared elsewhere, so I will put that on one side and say, if we have an honours system, how we should go forward. Would it not be the essential point to remove the prime minister entirely from the system as a start because it is prime ministerial patronage across the whole of central government which is really, I think, the core problem?

  Tony Benn: If the proposal I made that any MP could nominate one person every year, the prime minister would get his nomination. The description of the processes which I heard from the previous witness derives entirely from the fact that the Fount of Honour has been re-piped to Number 10 Downing Street and is controlled there. There is a little bit left at the palace, you know. I remember asking once the Garter King at Arms why some royal duke who met a foreign dignitary at Victoria Station had been given a GCVO and he said, "Well, if you live near the Fount of Honour you are bound to get doused." That was how the members of the Royal Family immediate get them. But that is quite separate and could be separated. But, if everybody wants to go to Buckingham Palace for a reception, I have no objection to that at all.

  Q809 Mr Hopkins: This patronage is something that I think the Prime Minister is determined to hang on to—

  Tony Benn: Oh, yes.

  Q810 Mr Hopkins: —in appointing members to the second chamber, the House of Lords. Again, every time that patronage is challenged, that is when the political centre reacts. If I may say, I think the first thing we should do is take the Prime Minster entirely out of the picture. Have you thought about the machinery for giving people honours?—some kind of machinery which would be respected and accepted by everybody, not just vaguely in Parliament; something like a supreme court, which was longstanding, appointed one by one, where the chairmanship would come up by seniority over a period of many years, and there would be no corruption, no taint in the system at all, because it would be entirely separated from politics.

  Tony Benn: I think the best way of doing it would be to distribute the right to nominate for honours. If all the learned societies had a right to nominate, if all local authorities had the right to nominate, if trade unions had the right to nominate, it would be the best way of doing it. Awards for gallantry are rather different, but even then I think I have referred to the fact that, unless it has been changed, officers get a Military Cross and men get a Military Medal. The only two honours that are classless are the Victoria Cross and the George Cross, which are given to people of any rank. They may have changed it now but it always seemed to me extraordinary that if you were a sergeant you got a different honour from a second lieutenant because you were not of his class. The thing is absolutely riddled with that. But you could diversify the roots of it, so you have quite a number of people nominated by their peers (by which I mean the people who know them best).

  Q811 Mr Hopkins: I agree with you about categorising honours. There are honours for service to government at the centre and then there are the honours which we all appreciate our constituents get for long service in the Red Cross or whatever. Those are very highly valued by constituents; they come as a surprise, they are very pleasant, and they are politically innocuous. But that is very different from the honours for the centre, for civil servants, for politicians, all of which is about prime ministerial patronage and control. Could we not devise a system for separating those two categories?

  Tony Benn: I think you are right, the main advocates of the royal prerogative are the prime ministers of   the day because they exercise it. One rather interesting example: as you know, we have modernised the House of Lords now back to the 14th century because hereditary peers did not begin until 1381. Up until then there were life peers: the king made people for life. By getting rid of hereditary peers, we have gone right back 600 years. That is because the prime minister now exercises the powers of the king and he does not want to give it up—I mean, no prime minister wants to give it up; I am not being personal to him—and all honours are that. Of course, then you get the "Lavender list" type of honour—you know, when Harold Wilson retired, some of his friends got titles—and people understand it but there could be other ways of rewarding people than putting them in a chamber of parliament and all that. If you give people honours and they deserve it, I do not think anybody objects to that. I certainly do not.

  Q812 Mr Hopkins: We have talked about alternative systems of honours. Could we not look to foreign countries, say like France, with the Legion d'honneur, something like that, a much simpler system, an honour for being a good citizen, in a sense. We could replace our whole system with something new which would be respected and accepted by everyone.

  Tony Benn: I think it must be one class. I think it is  very important. Otherwise, you not only differentiate between the people but their class base when you appoint them and what they have done, which is a bit difficult. I think the Legion d'honneur is very appropriate and the Congressional Medal is similar. Of course both of them go back to republican roots. In a sense, I have to admit, as you might have guessed, that in mentioning the Parliamentary Medal I too am going back to the 17th century, because the only way to deal with the illusion that the Crown is the Fount of Honour is to get to that. Whether the Committee would feel able to do that, I do not know, but I think it is a proposal that ought to be before you and I am grateful of having the opportunity to put it before you.

  Q813 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Tony, we have discussed before on various occasions what gongs, medals, baubles there should be. I know your views on the VC and others, and they are slightly different, but you have also talked about a Parliamentary Medal and other things. How would you reform it?

  Tony Benn: The recommendations I have made are that you would broaden the basis of nomination. You would not review them; you would assume that if the City of Birmingham recommended somebody for an honour that that had been properly considered and it therefore would all be in public. There would be no private discussions other than in the nominating bodies and you could call it what you   like. I have seriously thought that since a knighthood is a very old title, if you gave everybody a knighthood it would be rather nice. People would like it, they would turn up at the Palace, and it would also deal with some of the other knights who should not have had it because they would feel that they had been to some extent diffused in a mass of new knighthoods. But what is the principle on what you do it? I have honours: I am an honorary member of the National Union of Mineworkers, elected by the Committee and my honorary membership number is 001. I am a Freeman of the City of Bristol. If they had downs and I had cattle, I could graze them. I do not have cattle and they do not have downs, but at least it is a tremendous honour. I have honorary doctorates, and I think that is a real honour, but if I had been given a CBE I do not think I would really have wanted it, truthfully.

  Q814 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You are unusual in that. I think a lot of people like the CBEs—and the point was made—because they go to the Palace and get their gong from the Queen.

  Tony Benn: Yes. If you could do that right, yes.

  Q815 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I think the Freedom of the City of Bristol, yes, you are right, is an honour, but you are unlikely to go and graze your cattle. There are two different things, are there not? One is a very pertinent one because that is the City of Bristol giving it to you; the other is because you have done something but in fact the nicer part of it is that you go and have tea and wear a nice hat

  Tony Benn: Do not think I am not alive to that, because if the Queen lived in Buckingham Palace and changed the guard and it was all funded by the British Tourist and Holiday Board that would not in any way be incompatible with my idea of a republican society. I have no hostility to the Queen personally; she is nothing to do with it.

  Q816 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Do you think the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly should have their own honours system?

  Tony Benn: It would be open to them to decide, would it not?

  Q817 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I am sorry, I am asking you.

  Tony Benn: Yes, I do think that would be a good idea because you do want to reward people. Sometimes there are very, very severe people who think it is wrong to pick anyone up for anything, but I do not take that view. I think if someone has worked hard they should be rewarded and honoured by their colleagues. When the Labour Party had a medal of merit there was opposition to it on the grounds that it was of itself discriminatory between one colleague and another although they may all have been as good. I do not take that view. I think it is proper to reward.

  Q818 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You think that perhaps there should be, for ease of anything else, a Scottish medal.

  Tony Benn: If they had one, I would think it would be marvellous. I am half Scots myself, I might qualify!

  Q819 Mr Liddell-Grainger: There you are. Actually, if they went back to hereditary peers in Scotland, you could reapply, could you not?

  Tony Benn: But Scottish peers used not to sit in the House of Lords, so they had that one advantage!

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