Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 860-879)

20 MAY 2004


  Q860 Mr Liddell-Grainger: What is your feeling?

  Mr Major: My feeling, frankly, is that if people have been sent to prison and paid a price then I think that is the way our system has traditionally worked. I think that is probably sufficient. But then I am no longer in parliament and other people may wish to make another judgment. But that would be my judgment: if anybody has been found guilty of something and has been sent to jail, and they serve their sentence, it seems to me that is the punishment that society has determined for them. If you then impose post hoc punishment, that is not normally the way we do things. If people wish to pass legislation saying in prospective cases this is going to be the position, then everyone knows what the position is.

  Q861 Kevin Brennan: Could I just pick up on that. Surely if the purpose of honours is some expression of a fount of honour and so on, should they not be taken off people if they are guilty of dishonour?

  Mr Major: I have just answered the question as I think I should answer it. Other people may take a different view. It is clearly a very contentious issue.

  Q862 Kevin Brennan: What do you think of this business of giving evidence to foreign leaders? Robert Mugabe. Nicolai Ceausescu. We know what the Rumanian people thought of him when they got their hands on him. Why does that sort of thing go on? Does that not completely bring into disrepute—

  Mr Major: I cannot imagine you wish to rob the Prime Minister of his medal of honour in America. Or perhaps you do.

  Q863 Kevin Brennan: He has not collected it yet, because . . .

  Mr Major: He has got it; he just has not collected it.

  Q864 Kevin Brennan: We were told by a very good source it has taken a long time to design it and it will not be ready until after November.

  Mr Major: Is that what it is. Right. How very interesting.

  Kevin Brennan: They could not find a picture of him in profile! That was the problem.

  Q865 Chairman: We have looked at this in great detail, so we are on the case.

  Mr Major: That must clearly have been very difficult to obtain. I can quite see that. You have produced a fairly selective list, if I may say so, Kevin, of honours. I think there are others who have had honours who have been great friends of this country. I do not feel very strongly about it actually. I do not think any great harm would be done if they were abolished. I can also think it gives a great deal of pleasure in some cases with people who have been very close allies of the United Kingdom. I do not see any particular reason for doing it.

  Q866 Kevin Brennan: Does it serve any diplomatic purpose to give these honours—in this case to tyrants and murderers, but I presume that was not the intention at the time. Does it serve, in your experience as prime minister, a practical diplomatic purpose of any kind to engage in this practice?

  Mr Major: A large number of things we do in diplomacy do not actually meet the test of being a practical purpose on their own; they are part of building blocks to a relationship with other countries and no more than that. I would not place too great a value on these at all.

  Q867 Kevin Brennan: It is the equivalent of giving them a vase or book or something.

  Mr Major: No.

  Q868 Kevin Brennan: As a gift, a token gesture.

  Mr Major: If they are given a vase or a book and they have the same system as ours, and it is above tuppence-ha'penny, it actually gets taken away from them anyway—and quite properly too, in my judgment. No, I think it is an acknowledgement of the way they have worked and the relationship that they and their countries have developed with Britain. I would not make too much of this. If it were abolished, I do not think anything particularly would be lost. That is certainly the case. But I think it gives a great degree of pleasure sometimes to acknowledge overseas leaders who perhaps have worked particularly closely with British governments and had a particular affection for this country. So I think it is a harmless and attractive gesture, but I do not think it serves any real diplomatic purpose.

  Q869 Mr Prentice: You told us in your evidence that you would retain knighthoods and damehoods and then you told us how Norma was overjoyed to become a Dame and you are happy walking two paces behind her. How does all this square with the classless society that is associated with you?

  Mr Major: The classless society was not about removing the vivid tapestry of British life; it was about equality of opportunity and making sure that people perhaps from the back streets of Britain could get to be prime minister. That was the sort of thing I was talking about with the classless society. I was not talking about removing our traditions or our instincts: I think we would be a lot poorer without those traditions.

  Q870 Mr Prentice: When I was speaking to a political knight—and I was not speaking to Sydney—I asked, "What difference does it make?" and he said, "Well, I can get an upgrade and I can get a table at a restaurant."

  Mr Major: Yes. I do not know; I am not a knight. I cannot tell you whether it has those particular advantages but I am happy to take your word for it that it might.

  Q871 Chairman: You get upgrades anyway, do you not?

  Mr Major: I have never, to the best of my knowledge, been upgraded.

  Q872 Mr Prentice: Still on the classless society theme, can I ask you about Denis Thatcher and your decision to recommend him for a baronetcy. You will know that this features in Michael de la Noy's seminal tome on the issue, The Honours System. He says this, "Where the whole affair"—that is, the baronetcy for Denis Thatcher—"passed beyond the realms of credulity was in the choice of honour—a baronetcy. A knight bachelorhood would have just about sufficed, the KBE would have been perfectly appropriate, but for Mr Major to have resurrected an hereditary honour that had last been conferred some 23 years before was an extraordinary way of ushering in what he had only just proclaimed he desired to see created: a classless society." What was the sequence of events that led you to recommend Denis Thatcher for a baronetcy? And, of course, now, Mark Thatcher, who lives in South Africa, is a baronet by succession.

  Mr Major: There were a sequence of very powerful arguments put to me at the time.

  Q873 Mr Prentice: Let's hear them. Come on, just spit it out!

  Mr Major: But I am sure you would not wish me to go into the detail of private conversations.

  Chairman: Take us through the essence of it.

  Q874 Mr Prentice: We would. This is all jollity and so on, but it is an important issue, is it not? It is an honour, it is hereditary, and I am just fascinated, and my colleagues are, about how it happened.

  Mr Major: It was a response to powerful representations that I felt inclined to grant at the time. But I do not think I am going to elaborate upon that.

  Mr Prentice: Can we force the former prime minister to elaborate? No.

  Q875 Chairman: The quarter that we are thinking about is the quarter that you are implying, is it not?

  Mr Major: I do not know what you are thinking about. I spent most of my time not realising what MPs were really thinking about, so I am hardly in a position to judge what this distinguished cohort of colleagues, many of whom did not sit with me for long, are thinking about. So, no, I would not draw any conclusions from that at all.

  Q876 Mr Prentice: Let me be blunt. Was it put to you that the outgoing prime minister would be delighted if her husband were honoured in some way?

  Mr Major: I am not going to go into the details. I do not think it is proper to do so. I have not done so in terms of other people. There were representations made; they came from more than one source. I decided in the circumstances of the day, very special circumstances of the day, that it was appropriate to grant those representations.

  Q877 Mr Prentice: It would not phase you if the present Prime Minister were to continue this tradition, I suppose, that you established or resurrected, of conferring hereditary honours.

  Mr Major: It is a matter for the Prime Minister and he would have to defend it as I am defending it now.

  Q878 Mr Prentice: But we are doing this inquiry into the whole system

  Mr Major: Let's wait and see whether he does so. At the moment the present Prime Minister has not served for 11 years, his wife was not (and never can be) the first male spouse in Downing Street with the special circumstances that existed for a period of 11 years, and we have moved on, which is why you are holding this inquiry and why I am here giving evidence to you. So I think there is a material series of different propositions at stake. No two cases are identical, not in terms of the honours system.

  Q879 Chairman: We are not of course going to press you on the narrative, but I think the reason why the question was asked like that is because we have had lots of representations from the public in the course of this inquiry, vast quantities of them. Those people who are really most discontented with the system always point to the particular examples of what they think is the case that brings the system into disrepute—and we have a list of recurrent names that seem to do that. Do instances of that kind not do immense damage to this system that you are very much attached to? The people who write and say, "Look, it is deeply offensive, the fact that Mark Thatcher . . . What has he done for the country to deserve an hereditary honour?" Do you not see that it impacts on the wider system? It is not just a particular case.

  Mr Major: Of course I see that, which is why I said I thoroughly supported the innovation of the Stevenson Committee and I wished you to put it on a statutory basis and to recommend that, so that you actually have a different situation from the one that has existed in the past. I made that clear in my submission and I am happy to make it clear now. The sorts of concerns that people have, that you claim people are writing about, I think many of the people who do write do not understand what the scrutiny system is. I think that is the first point. There is a great deal of misunderstanding. The number of people who have written: this prime minister did this, that prime minister did that, on the assumption that they have done it alone, unaided, without advice, without consideration, without checking and without there being an independent scrutiny committee. That is what people think. That is not actually correct. But you can change the perception by merging the Honours Scrutiny Committee (as it now is) with the Stevenson Committee, make it statutory, and give the Stevenson Committee power that at the moment it does not have. At the moment the Stevenson Committee can consider honours from people recommending themselves, they can consider honours from people who are recommended. The Stevenson Committee cannot reach out and say, "Here are hugely worthy individuals who in our judgment could make a contribution, particularly to the House of Lords, but are too proud to nominate themselves and have not persuaded friends to nominate them." At the moment they cannot do that. I think the Stevenson Committee could do that. If the Stevenson Committee could do that, and if this House put them on a statutory basis so they do not exist upon the whim of the prime minister and the membership determined by the prime minister—and I am not critical of this Prime Minister in particular, he set it up, I am talking about prime minister as a generic being—then I think you would begin to remove much of the criticism which clearly is about and which I acknowledge is about—because I have a postbag too occasionally. So I think there are areas where you could legitimately move to update the situation that applies at the moment. The Prime Minister has dealt with that most recently with the illustration I gave you, with the appointment of Eddie George and John Kerr, who clearly are very able members of the House of Lords but did not fall within the remit of the Stevenson Committee or anybody else. So I think these changes can be made and I think they will remove some of the concerns that people have actually had about the system.

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