Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)



  Q360  Mr Prentice: Did people know you were keeping a diary?

  Clare Short: No, I do not think so. I do not agree. I am perfectly happy for any of the officials in my department to publish anything that is said in the Cabinet. I think we should be sincere in what we do. The commentary might be unfair but if you mean what you say I do not mind anyone commenting.

  Q361  Mr Prentice: People may hold back in expressing a controversial point of view because of a fear that this is going to appear in someone's diary.

  Clare Short: Maybe it is just how one is temperamentally but I would not feel restrained in any way by that. We all know that Alastair Campbell was keeping a very detailed diary. I am not going to speak differently. I do not expect it necessarily to be a fair account but if you start doing that, what is the point of being there?

  Q362  Mr Prentice: I wonder if I could ask Lord Owen and Lord Lawson the same question. Do you think this diary keeping, especially with the vast sums of money that are paid to the authors—Alastair Campbell is on record as saying his diary is his pension—has got out of hand and is affecting the quality of decision making?

  Lord Owen: I personally do. I think diaries are very interesting and eventually should be published. You can look back at the war diaries of, say, Field Marshall Allenbrook, for example, who gives an incredibly important perception of how Churchill worked and how impossible he was in many respects. The timing for when you produce these things and who produces them is quite important. I believe Cabinet government broadly speaking is better for people arguing their case, losing the argument, and a period of time in which they do not reveal. What is that period? We used to have a 30 year rule. That is clearly obsolete and out of date. We should in my view go down to 10 but certainly 15. We have to modify and change. The Freedom of Information Act, which I also support, also has an advantage. The chaos at the moment could be quite short lived. A very important piece of information has come out of what Christopher Meyer said. Throughout his whole time, the only time he was on the secret telephone was to Number 10. It was never to the Foreign Office. That must be the first American ambassador who would ever say that. That is a practical demonstration of the extent to which we now have a wholly personalised, Number 10 orientated, defence and whole security system.

  Q363  Mr Prentice: The situation can change because I see in the memorandum that you gave us that the Cabinet was alive and kicking between 1990 and 1997, in John Major's time.

  Lord Owen: I think John Major did return power to the Foreign Secretary. Douglas Hurd was given more autonomy than his predecessor, Geoffrey Howe. I think that was good and beneficial. You cannot deny a Prime Minister's right to have a different structure. It is a very different structure in terms of the relationship with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister. I am not denying there will be times when there are inner Cabinets or anything but on this question of diary keeping nobody can object to somebody writing a diary. Barbara Castle who did shorthand used to write a very accurate and interesting diary. I am not against diaries; it is when and how they come out.

  Q364  Mr Prentice: Lord Lawson, your memoirs were published three years after you left office?

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: That is right, yes. One of the considerations I felt I should attach and did attach some weight to was the fact that, by the time my memoirs came out, the Prime Minister who was the principal player if you like in the particular drama that I was writing about, was no longer in office. My 10 years or so as a minister were during the Thatcher period. I did not serve under John Major at all but, by the time my memoirs came out, John Major was the Prime Minister.

  Q365  Mr Prentice: You said some pretty choice things about John Major.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: It was a different administration. You do have to take into account the passage of time and whether it is the same administration or a different administration. Also, you do need to exercise a certain amount of judgment as to what you say and what you do not say. I think nearly every former minister does exercise judgment on what he thinks is fair. Going back to Radcliffe, the Radcliffe rules are very peculiar in a number of respects. One in particular is that if you have had an argument with the Prime Minister over a particular issue you are entitled to write what you said. You are not entitled to write what was said back. This would make the account of the conversation a rather peculiar, one sided one. There may be some former ministers who were only interested in what they said but I felt, since I wanted my memoirs to be of some lasting value and in a sense an accurate, historical record, that it was necessary to include both sides of the conversation.

  Q366  Mr Prentice: Your memoir was published when John Major was Prime Minister of course.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: That is right.

  Q367  Mr Prentice: You said of him he often came to you ashen faced. You thought you might have made the wrong choice of Chief Secretary and then you went on to say that John Major found the job as Chief Secretary far more difficult than anything he had ever done before and had to work very hard to try and master it.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: As I pointed out, he did eventually master it.

  Q368  Mr Burrowes: You were aware of Alastair Campbell's diary. Professor Hennessy talked about the notion of competitive memoiring and effectively you wanted to get your defence in first. That was the prime motive rather than necessarily letting the truth get out?

  Clare Short: I do not know whether you had joined the Committee when I made my initial remark. There was this very harsh and deliberate attempt to completely silence me. The Chief Whip tried to get me to agree to say nothing that was in any way critical of the Prime Minister under threat of the whip being withdrawn from me. Given what I needed to say and what I think is enormously important for the historical record and debate, I wrote the book because I thought I had to get out what I had to say. I still think that.

  Q369  Mr Burrowes: In terms of the timing, if you had perhaps waited would there not be more inclination to say you wanted to get the truth out but nevertheless you were not following on perhaps in undermining the system you suggest was breaking down? The genie is out of the bottle and you perpetuated that rather than letting the truth come out.

  Clare Short: I personally think that the way in which we went to war in Iraq, the amount of deceit that was involved in it and the disaster it is for the Middle East is much more serious than Suez. People keep comparing it to Suez. As a country, as politicians, as people who are concerned for the governance of the UK and the role of the UK in the world, this is an extremely urgent debate. It is not just something to wait ten years for and then talk about. Parliament is doing very badly at attending to it. Our political system is functioning very badly. This is my one postscript to some of the earlier remarks: if we had a much smaller majority again, Cabinet government would probably come back. Of course, if we had a hung Parliament, that is certainly so. It is not necessarily for ever but I do think that once power has been accredited to Number 10 without a jolt to the system, it will stay there. This broken system might well go on malfunctioning, but my view is that we should have done a correction much earlier. I did not do a reflective log; I wrote this in four months, I did it deliberately and I still agree with myself.

  Q370  Mr Burrowes: When you were doing the diary, did you always intend to publish?

  Clare Short: No. I had no intention of doing the book. I was living through enormous turbulence and serious, historical events. It was a pretty scruffy diary and they were very heated times with late nights and all the rest. I was not writing a big, long diary. When I left the government I was intending to make speeches in the Commons, to go round the Labour Party to get this debate going, but then you cannot speak in the Commons any more. It is seven minutes and everyone has to go home at 10. It is very difficult to get the time to make any substantial speeches, especially when you are on the government's side with big majorities. It is a big change from when I was a back bencher when we were in opposition. The Labour Party is a very different creature.

  Q371  Mr Burrowes: Away from the exceptional situation of the story that needed to be told, if you had come to the point of saying, "I want to put down a legacy of my memoirs", would you have considered it appropriate away from the exceptional circumstances of Iraq?

  Clare Short: Yes, probably, but I did not get to that consideration because I was under this enormous pressure. We were approaching an election and the Chief Whip was saying, "I am going to take the whip from you" which would mean I could not stand as a Labour candidate. I have put my adult life into serving the Labour Party as an instrument of justice at home and internationally. This is a monumentally serious thing for my life and she is trying to tell me to be silent about things that I have already said in the House of Commons. I had to write something and I said, "Look, I have already made the speeches. They are on the record in the House of Commons. You are now telling me I cannot say what I have already said." That was the nature of the conversations that were taking place. This was a rather urgent matter for me and my life but also I think for the truth and the record of what took place.

  Q372  Mr Burrowes: Away from those exceptional events, you had come to the stage where you had left office and you decided you wanted to do your memoirs. Would you have considered an appropriate time to be not the one but the three years or the five years?

  Clare Short: If you wrote something in three years or so it would be different. It would be less raw and more reflective, especially if you had a change of administration. There is a place for those books too but I do thoroughly believe the truth should get out and we are living in a time when there is so much spin. Journalism is so tied into the sources in Number 10. Truthfulness and accuracy are diminishing in the discourse of public life so if books are a way for people to get their truths out they should happen.

  Q373  Mr Burrowes: Lord Owen and Lord Lawson, were you expecting publications by your former colleagues?

  Lord Owen: All the time I worked for Barbara Castle, I expected that she was going to write a biography. I had no objection to it. It was very accurate. The only slight thing was that Barbara had a habit of wanting to toughen up any recommendation you made or to change it. In order to handle her, you would have to recognise that so you would pitch your representations where you felt she would end up. She was very fair to civil servants. She would not castigate them. She broadly followed the normal rules. Her memoirs contributed to an understanding of politics. Mine was much later. Also, I was a member of a happy Cabinet. Whatever arguments about Jim Callaghan can be made, nobody denies it was an extremely happy Cabinet. There were disagreements but even Tony Benn never disputed the fact that it was a happy Cabinet. There was no briefing against each other and, broadly speaking, we lived harmoniously within the collective rules despite the differences of opinion.

  Q374  Mr Burrowes: Rather than the characters of individuals in terms of publishing memoirs at certain times, it is really a reflection on the system of government that has led the way for people to want to react to it by publishing their memoirs. The genie has come out of the bottle because of the way government has been led and run.

  Lord Owen: I really think we are in a different situation. I honestly cannot think of any situation, other than in most recent years, where a very senior ambassador would make so many personal comments about ministers. You cannot just isolate it and criticise his memoir and I am not going to get into that. You have to look at the climate of the time and why things have deteriorated so that this can happen; then, what can you do to correct it. I do hope we do something to correct it pretty soon because we are suffering. I supported the war on Iraq and I still do but the incompetence with which that war was conducted is very damaging. I am a supporter of the European Union but the European Constitution was not well handled by that inner Number 10 secretariat. Interestingly, on neither occasion, both on Iraq and the European Constitution, was public opinion held. I honestly think younger Members of Parliament forget that for a very substantial period of time bipartisanship in foreign and defence policy was the norm and it was quite valuable to this country. It was very hard to be the Foreign Secretary with the partisan political debate conducted on foreign policy. It is much easier if there is a great measure of support and that means also a good deal of trust. Things like intelligence information people accept because they have not seen it. There is a sort of trust. If you break that down and if you have a very real problem with the armed services—the armed services are very unhappy about the Iraq war at every level—we have to address that problem. It is up to you chaps to do this but this is Parliament's job now. Things have gone very badly wrong. Irrespective of your view on whether or not we should have gone into Iraq, things have gone very badly wrong and I hope you do address it. In a strange way, I think you are addressing it in a very fundamental way. By looking at these memoirs, you have the opportunity to ask, "Why has this situation occurred?". It does throw a very refreshing insight into what is happening.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: On diaries, I do not think there were any Cabinet colleagues writing diaries when I was in government. The only minister who it was well known was writing a diary was Alan Clark but he was writing purely for the purposes of entertainment and very entertaining it was too. He was never a member of the Cabinet anyway. He was a junior minister. We knew that a lot of people were going to write their memoirs in due time. I do not think that worried anybody at all and it has certainly never worried me. It is bad practice to write a diary because at times it does get in the way of your own effectiveness as a minister. The diary tends to become more important than the job you are meant to be doing. Even with diaries, and I think diaries and memoirs come to much the same sort of thing, it is a question of what you put in when you publish. As for the rather more serious point, the breakdown which has been discussed, I think it is a mistake to think of the problem as being a move from Cabinet government to Prime Ministerial government and that we need to go back to Cabinet government. This is an old chestnut. For a very, very long time, we have had a mixture of Prime Ministerial government and Cabinet government. It is not something new. Many people think, quite rightly, that Margaret Thatcher was a strong Prime Minister but there was a mixture of Prime Ministerial government and Cabinet government during her time. The big question is not whether it is Prime Ministerial government or Cabinet government but how the Prime Minister of the day conducts his or her aspect of the government and how he or she insists that Cabinet government is going to be conducted. It is the ground rules which are laid down by the Prime Minister of the day and these other ad hoc, institutional matters which David Owen was mentioning, which of course are far more acute in the field of foreign, defence and security policy than they are in the field of economic policy which I was chiefly concerned with, although as a member of the Cabinet you are also concerned with a lot of other things. Even in the area of economic policy there are a lot of important issues which have to be discussed and it is better if they are discussed in a reasonably orderly and rational way, a way that does not lead to a loss of trust between ministers and officials. One of the great joys of being a Cabinet minister is you have a back-up team of people who, for the most part—not always—are of exceptional calibre and who work very hard indeed and are, again most of them, extremely loyal. That is a great national asset and a great asset for the government. To allow that trust to break down is very serious indeed.

  Clare Short: It is not just the breakdown of Cabinet discussion. It is serious not having an open discussion when Cabinet responsibility has gone. When all the decisions are made in Number 10, the expertise that is in the Foreign Office and the Department of Education and its linked practitioners in the field is not being brought to the table when policy is thought through. When the authority breaks, the departments are pushed outside and you get poor quality decision making because the places in our government system where expertise lies are being excluded and I think that is happening.

  Q375  Paul Flynn: Lord Owen, one of the minor revelations that you made in your original text which was cut out was about a disagreement in the Jim Callaghan government on a relatively minor matter about the timing of the cancellation of a visit involving Iran. You say that Jim wanted to cancel the visit at an early stage but you wanted to hold on. Your view of that was influenced by the Queen. "The Queen did talk to me about her wish not to act too quickly and while the formal advice was against cancellation this was because, helped by knowing her view, I persuaded Jim Callaghan who wanted to cancel." That seems a fairly interesting and possibly very rare example of the Queen appearing to influence what is a political decision. Should that not have been kept in the book? Why did you decide to take it out? You were adamant that you were accurate on this, although the Palace, I gather, had a different view on it.

  Lord Owen: Did I tell you that?

  Q376  Paul Flynn: Page 19 is the reference to the Queen.

  Lord Owen: Maybe I did. The Queen does not take political views but she has an extraordinary way of making clear what she thinks. It is a great skill. I cannot remember her ever making any political statement whatever to me but I can recall many occasions when I was left very clear on what her view was. I think that is her skill and why ministers have valued talking to her, travelling with her and gaining from her knowledge. She is extremely experienced about Africa. She knows many of the leaders. She has known them since they were very young presidents or prime ministers. On this particular issue it was pretty obvious that the Shah was crumbling and the question was do you let them make the cancellation themselves or do we do it. It was my view that, with the pace at which it was happening, it was going to come anyhow. It was my impression that she thought that as well. I do not think that changed my mind necessarily but it was a factor and I knew that Jim was pressing to do it too.

  Q377  Paul Flynn: You say it was helped by your view. You and Her Majesty were on the right side. Jim appeared to be wrong and was proved to be wrong by subsequent events. The point is that if, on a far more serious issue, the future head of state decided to attempt to influence politicians, should we not know about it? Is this a matter that could be kept from us by the Radcliffe rules?

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: The monarch is in a very special position. The Queen's views are always the product of a great deal of experience. She has been on the throne ever since Winston Churchill was Prime Minister. She has more experience than anybody else. It is wrong to say that she is seeking to influence decisions. She expresses a view from time to time but it is very important for the position of the monarchy that that should never, ever be revealed in any memoirs or any published document of any kind.

  Q378  Paul Flynn: One of the things that concerns us greatly on this is the fact that, unlike the three of you, there are very good reasons for distinguished politicians writing about their long careers. Some would say Lord Lawson and Clare were writing after you had a very rough time, I believe, with unfair criticism in the press and you wanted to put the record straight. The financial factor of making money was very minor, if it was a factor at all, in writing yours. We do know that making money from memoirs is possibly the main impetus for many people writing their memoirs and they know that, if they are going to get a great deal of money from them, they have to spice them up. They have to make sure they are interesting. Do you think there is a case for saying—and it has been suggested—that political memoirs of this type from civil servants or politicians even should be declared to be Crown copyright and that the money from them should go to the Treasury, to get rid of this incentive for people not only to spice up their memoirs but also possibly to act in a different way while they are doing their jobs in order to make sure that they have juicy, sexy memoirs to publish for their pension?

  Clare Short: That is an interesting suggestion. You could ask how long did Lance Price take to write his book and what is a reasonable return and the rest he cannot have. I think it is much more important to get the truth than the spice and the money because that distorts the truth as well. If we tighten up the code or make it more explicit, particularly on the personalised abusive comment level, which I think we could do, you could use a fine system. You could have rules and, if they are breached, money is the penalty. That is worth thinking about. If we want to get books out but stop abuse and if financial incentives are distorting things, the obvious mechanism to deal with it is financial.

  Lord Owen: I know you are in favour of boosting government revenue but on this basis Alan Clark's sexual revelations would be the best way of boosting revenue, so I do not think it is tittle tattle of government; I think it is more sex in all memoirs from politicians in future.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: Writing a decent memoir is extremely difficult. In my case, of all the jobs I have ever done, I found writing my memoirs the most difficult, partly because it is such a solitary business, whereas pretty well everything else you do in life you do as part of a team. It is reasonable that there should be some reward. There is an interesting question there and I do not know the answer to it. You have certain conventions as to what should and should not be published. You have this dialogue between the Cabinet Secretary and former ministers. The question is what happens if the ex-minister is unreasonable in a serious way. In the old days you could threaten them, though nothing ever was done about it because it was too much of a sledge hammer, but you could invoke the Official Secrets Act. People did not want to be in breach of the Official Secrets Act, even if they were not going to be prosecuted. That went away with the liberalisation of the Official Secrets Act. Now, it is really only ostracism. You might be ostracised from the establishment.

  Clare Short: With the withdrawal of all patronage.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: Yes. The great thing about life peerages is that we do not need to bother about that. But the establishment will not look after you. Alastair Campbell said that his memoir was his pension. Whether you should say, "If you opt for that pension you do not get the other pension. Your ministerial or Civil Service pension will be withheld"—

  Q379  Paul Flynn: I think we have followed that final point. One of the criticisms of Christopher Meyer's book is that it might permanently affect the kind of trust that has been there for a long time between ambassadors and politicians. Because of the revelations that he has made so soon after the event, while the same people are still in power, that could be permanently damaging. Do you think it is sensible to write into the contracts of civil servants bars on their publishing memoirs within a certain period after they retire or, as you suggest, having influences on the contract themselves? There are limits in their contract to restrict them from publishing matters that could be damaging to the national interest.

  Clare Short: I think it would be wrong to muzzle civil servants when politicians are allowed to write, especially when there has been this blurring of roles. Jeremy Greenstock was a more central player than the non-foreign policy people in the Cabinet. He knew more; he was fronting things in the media, just to take one example. To have one set of rules for politicians and another for civil servants would be wrong. I think rules about revealing things about civil servants who cannot answer back still have to be attended to. I think we could tighten the rules on personalised, abusive comment. My view on Christopher Meyer is that, one, the trust broke down and, two, he submitted the book. It is astonishing they did not ask for changes.

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