Examination of Witness (Questions 860-879)|
20 MAY 2004
Q860 Mr Liddell-Grainger: What is your
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 honoursin 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
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
anywayand 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
Q870 Mr Prentice: When I was speaking
to a political knightand I was not speaking to SydneyI
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 honoura 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
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
Mr Major: It is a matter for the
Prime Minister and he would have to defend it as I am defending
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
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 disreputeand 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
ministerand I am not critical of this Prime Minister in
particular, he set it up, I am talking about prime minister as
a generic beingthen I think you would begin to remove much
of the criticism which clearly is about and which I acknowledge
is aboutbecause 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.