Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Q1  Chairman: I welcome our witnesses this morning: Lord Wilson, a former Cabinet Secretary, and Professor Peter Hennessy, man about town. It is good to have you both together. Primarily, we asked you to come and talk about the issues of memoirs that we are having a look at. We started looking at it before the most recent controversy but it shows that it is sensible to do it. Because we have got you, we would like to ask you about the other inquiries that we are doing at the moment too: one is broadly on the area of ethics and standards in government; and one on the minister-civil servant relationship. I hope you do not mind if we touch on a number of areas, even though we shall start with memoirs. Do either of you want to say anything by way of introduction, or shall we just fire off?

  Professor Hennessy: Briefly, Chairman, may I explain this piece of paper I brought from the National Archives, which everybody has, because I think it illustrates the kind of ecology of expectations in that generation, this is 1970, about when you should publish, who should publish, the rigmarole you should go through before you publish, and the degree to which it is a world we have lost since 1970. Ted Heath has just been Prime Minister for less than a month; Mr Macmillan's memoirs arrive rather late and there is not enough time to read them. This is a volume Riding the Storm covering 1956-59—this is Richard's predecessor but four, I think—Sir Burke Trend apologising for bothering the new Prime Minister with this, but he is very alarmed, you see. The bit I would draw your attention to is in the middle of the big paragraph on the first page: "It is—needless to say—a very attractive work; lively, interesting and very informative. Nevertheless, it comes dangerously near to being `contemporary history'. . . ." This only went up to 1959 and it was 1970. He warns Ted that he might have to be called in aid to calm Harold down. Macmillan, as ever, is hilarious. He says he is due to see his publisher, and so can they get on with it. He was the President of Macmillan Publishing. It was an elaborate joke really. Five years after this, and I know Richard is going to be the guide on this, the ecology changed dramatically again with the Crossman Diaries, which the then Cabinet Secretary had to go to court to try to suppress and failed. And the Radcliffe guidelines, which everybody seems to have forgotten about—emerged from those: the 15-year voluntary reticence on both of the parties to the governing marriage, officials and now ministers, and now it has completely changed. I think that has to do mainly with the very scratchy relationships, scratchier than I have ever known it, between the partners to the governing marriage, officials and the ministers, and the third party in that marriage, the special advisers, but no doubt we can come to that later. I thought if we started with this, it would show you the degree to which expectations change over 30 years, almost completely.

  Q2  Chairman: It is a fascinating text. The Committee has just had circulated to it also the letter from the present Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell, to the publishers of Sir Christopher Meyer. It is very interesting to compare these two texts, just to show us the time that has elapsed between these two moments. Peter, I want to ask you this to start with. You have lived on both sides of this divide, have you not? You have been the person who has sniffed around Whitehall giving these secrets out as a journalist that people did not want to tell you. I often tease you that your main reference in your books is always called "private conversation". You have been the great sleuth digging all this stuff out, and then you have become this very distinguished historian of these things. When this memoir, this stuff, comes out, I want to know which side you are on really.

  Professor Hennessy: It is fascinating but of course I love it on one level; there is nothing better. It brings harmless joy to the reading public, serialisers of Sunday newspapers, my old friends sitting on that bench there, even humble contemporary historians and their students. On the other side, in another bit of me, I think you have to have a pretty high level of trust between the partners of the governing marriage. If you do not, you are going to have serious trouble across the whole of the piece. I have one or two thoughts, which I can come to in a minute, if you like, about what the new Radcliffe settlement might be in today's circumstances, because you have to start where reality is. Let me do something historians are not meant to do, leap forward. I have a feeling that when this Prime Minister has finally gone to the Valhalla of the failed—that is a bit unkind, the Valhalla of the departed—his Press Secretary, Alastair Campbell, will publish his diary, and that will be the equivalent of an archduke being shot in Sarajevo in July 1914. It will be the opening salvo of the most ghastly mobilisation of most wonderful exchanges of competitive memoiring. People will have touched the acid keyboard in anticipation of that. I have a slight suspicion—my old friend on my left here may confirm this or not—that in anticipation of that day, people have got defensive bits of paper of their own ready to put out. Geoff Mulgan, who is a very considerable figure, in a very good radio programme on Number 10 and all that, recently said how corrosive it was to have the knowledge that Alastair Campbell is in the meeting with the diary going that night. I think there is a lot of defensive preparation there, and it will be like 1914. Timetables will be mobilised. There will be the most enormous clash and you will have to reconvene. You have this glorious opportunity, I know you get fed up when I tell you this, to save the British Constitution, but you are all we have got left really. Parliament, through you, has the opportunity to get to a new settlement before the equivalent of the Great War that Alastair Campbell's diaries will stimulate, so go for it.

  Q3  Chairman: You are on the Mulgan side of the argument, are you?

  Professor Hennessy: The glory of having a very, very tight Whitehall—the old citadel when Peter Riddell and David Hencke and I still had our hair and teeth and were young and promising, was a really tough target. It is a pushover now. You have freedom of information, competitive leaking, and all these memoirs. It was so much more fun when you had to treat it like an intelligence target and go for it over decades and run networks of informants. I am knocking my friend here who was extremely resistant to my charms in his day. It was much more fun all round if we had to work for it rather than getting it on a plate.

  Q4  Chairman: This is the bit I was asking you at the beginning. This is destroying your trade, is it not?

  Professor Hennessy: Yes. We will have to find other ways to take on the mighty. I am sure there are some. We could think of some together, could we not?

  Q5  Chairman: Richard, could we have your view? Has there been a falling off and what can be done about it?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think the change is less sharp than Peter is suggesting. I worked in the Department of Energy in the 1970s under Tony Benn. I worked on nuclear power for four years, which was an area which, to say the least, was extremely contentious with a lot of tension between Tony Benn and the centre of government, a lot of tension between him and some of his officials. We all knew he was keeping a diary. He made no secret of it. He went home every night and dictated in the shed at the bottom of the garden. I do not think it affected us at all. I think we knew it was going on and we just braced ourselves for publication when it came. At that time, Brian Sedgemore who was his PPS published—I have checked my facts here—Brian Sedgemore published a book in 1980 called The Secret Constitution in which he wrote in enormously detailed account of discussions between the Secretary of State and officials, including summaries of advice that was given. He broke every rule in the book, far more so than Christopher Meyer or Lance Price or any other recent publications. He also wrote a novel called Mr Secretary of State in 1978 when he probably was still a PPS, or only just stopping as PPS, in which all sorts of people appear and settings including a conference at Sunningdale which I organised. He has a great account of how difficult it was to get people to organise it. There is a sense in which at that time people were publishing things I think in rather more detail than they are now. I do not think anyone made a great fuss about it. We are more sensitised now than we were then. In that sense, people have always written books. I could go on at length. Civil servants have written books. Robert Hall kept diaries, which have now been published; he kept diaries for six years. Jock Colville kept diaries during the war from 1939 to 1955, which have been published. Bernard Ingham, 15 years ago, if you read his biography, his memoir, sat down the moment he had retired and wrote Kill the Messenger. I do not remember there being an outcry, though I may be wrong about that. There is a marvellous description of Peter Hennessy as "lord high butterer up of top civil servants". From time to time this breaks out. I do not think you should ever see it as being a slow decline or a rapid decline. What is important is that the Radcliffe Report, which I would like to commend to you very warmly, in 1976 covered all of this with wisdom and subtlety and a great deal of common sense. Radcliffe says that of course there will be people who break the rules; what matters is that nobody condones it. As long as people recognise what is done as being wrong, and as long as the bulk of people observe the rules, then that is still the best approach.

  Q6  Chairman: Surely, that is what has changed? When I re-read Radcliffe, and you have given your take on it there, what they are saying is that we do not need any new laws because basically the world is still full of honourable people; there may be the occasional rogue but we should not change the law because of the occasional rogue; honour is still intact. I am sure what we are seeing now with everyone doing this is that that world has changed, has it not?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: Has it? I was Cabinet Secretary for nearly five years. By my recollection, and this is simply from memory, I cleared 10 kinds of memoirs and diaries: six of them were by politicians, four of them were by permanent officials. Do you want me to list them?

  Q7  Chairman: That would be helpful.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: John Major, Norman Lamont, Michael Heseltine, Mo Mowlam, Richard Needham and interestingly Paddy Ashdown, who, because he was a member of the Joint Consultative Committee which was formerly a Cabinet committee, very properly came to me and said he thought he should ask me to clear the relevant passages, and I did that. Those are the ministers. All of them went through the process in an absolutely proper way, and I can describe the process to you if you want that. Then the four officials were: Stella Rimington; Percy Cradock who wrote that book Know Your Enemy; Peter Le Cheminant, a book of memoirs; and Roy Denman, a book called The Mandarin's Tale, and he had been a Deputy Secretary in the Board of Trade (DTI). Only two books compared with that 10 were published which broke the rules: one was Geoffrey Robinson, who wrote a book called The Unconventional Minister that did not come to the Cabinet Secretary; and the other was John Nott, who I think did it by accident. He wrote me a charming letter the day the book came out saying, "I was not meant to have cleared this with you, was I?" and I wrote back and said, "You were really, but it is a bit late now". As it was over 20 years since some of the things he was describing, I think it had not occurred to him. There were two other books which are in a rather curious category. One was Janet Jones, Ivor Richards's wife, who wrote The Labour of Love, which is a kind of Mrs Dale's Diary of what was going on in government. Whether that comes under the rules, I really do not know, but anyway it did not come near me. I am not sure but I remember thinking that Giles Brandreth had published some diaries, but whether he was actually covered or not, I am not sure because he had only been, I think, a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, but I may have got that wrong.

  Q8  Chairman: That was on the dirt on the Tory Whip's Office.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: Was it? I have never read it. The point I am making is that I think you are wrong to say the rules do not hold. In my experience, which I admit is now three years out of date, 10 people went through the processes properly and only one person really broke the rules.

  Q9  Chairman: This is fascinating. When we reach a point where a departing ambassador can immediately write a book, not caring really whether he is told this is okay or not because it seems that he is going to do it, and when we have routine diary keeping, instant memoirs from everybody engaged in government, huge sums being paid out to them, it becomes an industry. The argument is being made now that this is corrosive of the good conduct of government. What I would like to know, Richard, is: is that an argument that you take seriously?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: This is an argument I take very seriously indeed. I think that permanent civil servants have a duty of confidentiality to their ministers, and it is crucially important that they should observe it because, if they do not, trust breaks down; people start worrying about whether what they are saying will be recorded and published in a newspaper. More than that, you not only damage trust in yourself if you publish but you also undermine things for other people still in the service because ministers will start wondering who else is going to publish memoirs like that. I think Christopher Meyer was wrong to publish his memoirs in the way that he did. I think Lance Price was wrong as well. I think it is also important, though, to realise that what matters is the act of publication and the timing of publication. If you read Radcliffe, he is very clear. He is eminently quotable and I am going to bore you a bit with quotes. He says: "At some point of time the secrets of one period must become the common learning of another". I think it is very important that people understand government, how governments work and what actually goes on inside government. I would not want there to be a sense that there is a complete ban on people publishing ever at all.

  Q10  Chairman: But publishers do not want books 10 years on. Publishers want books today about what happened yesterday.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: The interests of publishers do not override the interests of good government. It is very important that there is a system which people observe and in which judgments are made as objectively as possible about what is acceptable at any one given time. It does depend on the context of every case.

  Q11  Chairman: The system has broken down?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am not serving in government at the moment. It is over three years since I left, so I do not know that. I do not accept that the system has necessarily broken down. I just think it is very important that if we can strengthen it, we should, and I am happy to offer some thoughts about that. It is very important that everybody asserts the rules. I would guess a lot of what Christopher Meyer wrote is, frankly, rather dull. There is only a handful of pages in his book, which I have skimmed, which seem to me to cause offence. What is wrong about his book is that he is commenting on people who are active in public life now and on events that are still very hot politically, and I think that is disloyal and ill-judged. I would guess he probably regrets it now, but I do not know that.

  Professor Hennessy: I think we need to hang around for the Meyer defence, which he outlined in an interview with the Independent on Sunday, because he implied that he thought that the ministers who had rushed into print recently had broken the ministerial side of the bargain. He cited Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam and Clare Short. The trouble is that once one party to the governing marriage thinks the other one is behaving out of order, you can treat it as an alibi for following suit. But he also added, and we must not forget this, and this really is a new world, "and out there somewhere there is the public right to know". Since January, we are a freedom of information nation. Radcliffe could not contemplate freedom of information; it was a mere whisper in Labour manifestos, which nobody read in 1974. Now it has arrived after all this time. Former officials can use the Freedom of Information Act to ask for stuff that is pretty well warm off the Whitehall word processors, if it is not in the exempt areas. We have to blend into this inquiry in a way Radcliffe did not have to the fact that we are a freedom of information state and everybody has rights under that Act, including former ambassadors. Where do you draw the line there? Percy Cradock's one, for example, used the Waldegrave Initiative by which a cornucopia of intelligence-related documents, Joint Intelligence Committee stuff from the Cold War, was released, and he built his book not around his own experience as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee but from the archive. So Percy, in a way, was the forerunner of what we might see more of. The Cabinet Secretary or the Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office being asked to vet memoirs or think pieces on the part of former officials that are pretty largely based on documents that are legitimately in the National Archives or are sought and found under the Freedom of Information Act is quite a tricky one, is it not? What do you do then? They bring to it an experience and an insider knowledge that may in spirit break the conventions. It is not just that the good chap theory of government has broken down. You are quite right that in 1974 people said, "It is just Crossman being Dick", and people did say that, and Radcliffe quite rightly said that the main thing is that the standards have always been restored. There have always been breakdowns, but it has always been restored. I think we have gone through that. I think duelling memoirs and duelling diaries are going to be a permanent feature. You have always tried to think the best of people. That is why you have been a civil servant. You have had to pretend that the twerps that you have been dealing with were in fact pillars of the constitution and bring some insight. You cannot help yourself. You are still charitable about them. You do not realise what rats most of them are. You never have done!

  Chairman: Mea culpa.

  Q12  Mr Prentice: Christopher Meyer famously talked about "political pygmies", and he was very dismissive of the qualities of some politicians. You talked about his alibi that politicians were slagging each other off. It is not just memoirs, is it; it is authorised biographies. The Pollard authorised biography quotes David Blunkett directly saying that Margaret Beckett is just really holding the ring. Margaret Beckett came out alpha plus as far as Christopher Meyer is concerned. Is there a case for asking biographers to submit authorised biographies for clearance?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think you would find that quite difficult to enforce because they have no contract of employment in which you can incorporate a process. I also think you would find yourself attracting all sorts of books which in no way would you wish to attract. There is a limit to what even the Cabinet Secretary can cope with in office in terms of reading and processing things. I would not want to make it an industry. If I possibly can, I would want to hang on to a system which is voluntary. I think Peter is right that we live in a more open world. What I am arguing for is a process where people wishing to publish information go to the Cabinet Secretary and discuss with him or her what is acceptable and what is not. A great deal of what people write goes through without difficulty. I myself when I looked at a book would say, "What is there in here that really matters?" One has a bias towards letting things go through. What you look at are the three very good criteria, which Radcliffe lays down: national security, international relations and the confidential relationship between ministers and ministers and ministers and civil servants.

  Professor Hennessy: That does not leave much left.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: It leaves a huge amount. If you read the biographies that I cited earlier, there is a great deal in them that is perfectly all right and does not fall into those categories. What you are trying to do is avoid things that cause damage. Even within the most open age, there is still an area of relationships you want to protect and there is a national interest in protecting good government.

  Q13  Mr Prentice: What about timing? The tabloids are out there. Let us take the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail could pay a huge sum of money to serialise memoirs in the run-up to a general election because it sees its mission in life as destabilising the Labour Party. Would you offer advice on the timing of publication?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think that timing is of the essence. One of the things that I would comment is that I would want manuscripts, or typescripts, to be submitted before they go to a newspaper. I think what the Lance Price case illustrated was the difficulty of the case where a newspaper compares the final version with the version that was submitted, because then you have this publicity based on what was banned from the book, which only draws attention to it. I think the timing of publication is also important because it must not be, if it is the case of an official, an intervention in the political process. That is really fundamentally what I think is one of the things which Christopher Meyer did. I would also argue that Peter, in his description of what the Cabinet Secretary does, was underestimating the extent to which it is a negotiation. Of course, in the end, as Radcliffe says, the person who wishes to publish has the right to publish if it is about relationships, but the case needs to be put to them and there must be sufficient time for the negotiation to take place. What you should not do is bounce, and again timing is important in that.

  Q14  Mr Prentice: Lance Price left Downing Street seven years ago. He is quite relaxed about his book, I suppose, because of the passage of time. Would you say seven years is just about right?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: It depends again on the facts of the case. I think you ought to wait until the main players are no longer active, as it were, until events have moved on, until the world has moved on. I ask myself why was Ingham's memoir all right coming so soon after he ceased to be a civil servant. I think the answer must have been because the then Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, had retired, and a lot of what he was writing about was to do with her time, and presumably also she was not objecting. There is a world of difference between what you are writing in that context and the position where people are still in office and what you are writing is critical of them.

  Q15  Mr Prentice: When Campbell publishes his diary, presumably Blair will have gone?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: Yes. I have no idea what the diary is like.

  Professor Hennessy: You have a pretty shrewd idea, have you not? There were extracts from it in the Hutton Report.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am not going to get into the business of editing something in advance which I have not seen and is not my business. I am a private citizen.

  Q16  Chairman: As Peter says, this is the good-natured view of the world where everyone behaves decently; they would come and show you these manuscripts and a decent time elapses. We are in a world now where people do not give a toss about that. They want the money now. You have got Meyer who says, "I am going to publish this stuff anyway".

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: You have also got a world where there is reaction against the Pollard book, which I think must have done David Blunkett's relationship—I am guessing as a member of the public—with some of his colleagues a lot of harm. I think you will find that Christopher Meyer will find that he pays a price in his relationships with other people, which he may come to regret. I do think the reaction to publication of books is important in the signal it gives to future people who are thinking of publishing. There is a price to be paid if you go ahead with revealing confidences and breaking loyalties very quickly in a way that causes offence and is a kind of entry into the political arena which is unacceptable. People pay that price and it is a hidden penalty with some significance.

  Q17  Grant Shapps: Just in terms of trying to dissect what can be done about this, it seems to me, having read the Radcliffe Report which for its time, 1976, is brilliant, it is so well written, that what we should really be doing is separating out the Ministerial Code from the Civil Service Code in our minds here. I think that it must be wrong that somebody who has been a senior civil servant can immediately betray those confidences. That is entirely different from a minister doing it. I would have thought there is a good case here for separating out the two a lot more. Can you reflect on that?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: Can I comment on that? I agree with you that the position of ministers is different from the position of civil servants in all sorts of ways. I think that ministers are accountable publicly; they have to defend their actions publicly and are subject to quite a lot of strong criticism in public. Therefore, the case for allowing them to come out with some kind of justification for their own actions is entirely defensible. I think that is right and it has been going on for a long time. Officials are protected still by ministers, though there is a tendency to make us more public figures. I think officials do owe a duty of loyalty that requires them not to rush into print. The interesting thing about the list that I read out to you earlier is that there are very few home civil servants over the years who have ever published anything quickly. Try to think of how many of them have done that over the last 30 or 40 years? In a way, I think that is quite remarkable. If I may finish my point very briefly, in the Civil Service you have an enormous corpus of knowledge about what goes on inside government. The degree to which that is not the subject of publication is, I think, impressive. If you look at the list I gave you, you could count on the fingers of one hand the home civil servants who have published anything about what went on in government, say, within 10 years of their leaving service.

  Q18  Grant Shapps: The reason I am trying to interject is that I think I am already closer to your point of view on this. I am much more interested in Peter's more excitable view on this matter. Even if you take the Meyer book, really the revelations in there are not that remarkable. He called Jack Straw a pygmy. We can all come to a conclusion as to whether or not we think that is the case; it does not have much to do with anything. The fact that Tony Blair walked along with his hands in his pockets when he was with the President of the United States again is really not a big revelation. There may be some tidying up to do around the edges here but it is not really the big problem that you think it is.

  Professor Hennessy: It was in the Jonathan Aitken trial in 1971, the official secrets trial under the old Official Secrets Act, when I think it was a Foreign Office witness who said that the highest classification in Whitehall is not "top secret", or all those GCHQ ones; it is "politically embarrassing". There is one above that which is "personally embarrassing". I often have to remind myself that you lot are human beings, but you are. There is nothing more offensive to a certain Deputy Prime Minister than the fact that he cannot entirely keep the foreign policy details of the world in his head when he goes in for a session with the Vice President. It is extremely wounding and he is bound to care more about that than an official writing about the row over the directive on dried prunes from Europe.

  Q19  Grant Shapps: Yes, but this is not something that we should move to legislate on, is it, because Radcliffe already deals with these things?

  Professor Hennessy: I think you should think about recommending a revamping of Radcliffe under the voluntary system. I would go for a five-year voluntary restraint on both sides (officials, ministers and special advisers, the two and a half governing tribes) providing for a shorter period if the government changes—not a prime minister changes but a government changes—because, as Richard said, when a government changes, there is a change of party and it is different. I think a five-year voluntary restraint, which some people will still break, is quite reasonable these days.

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