The “Lavender List”: Harold Wilson’s 1976 Resignation Honours List
THE Mail on Sunday recently described the “Lavender List” as the “the most notorious resignation honours list in this country’s history”. Is this true and if it is true what is the real story behind Harold Wilson’s 1976 Resignation Honours List? And why should anyone care about this today? After all isn’t this just of historical interest? What does this have to do with the world of 2018? Well, “plenty” is the answer to the last question. In fact the “Lavender List” is probably the most important issue of the last 40 years, not because of what it says about Westminster and Downing Street, but rather what it says about the mismatch between the way the public thinks the country is run and the way it is actually run.
But first let’s try and straighten out the record, because at this point in history the record is tortured at best.
What is a Resignation Honours List?
EVERY Prime Minister is by common wisdom the final arbiter of the Honours dispensed by his or her government. Officially, honours are awarded for public service, such as gallantry in the field, unpaid work in the public interest, civil servants who supposedly work for the public good and diplomats representing the national interest. Cultural achievement and charity work became common reasons for honours in the modern era, and these latter categories can be very broad (including directors, actors and pop singers). However, one particular class of honours, peerages, has always had an important constitutional aspect, namely membership in the House of Lords. The House of Lords, as the Upper Chamber of the British Parliament, has a central role in legislation, so peerages, as opposed to the other honours, are appointed for political reasons. This was less true before the introduction of life peerages in 1958. The consequence of the 1958 Act and the later disqualification of hereditary peers for membership of the Lords was to make the Lords a more partisan chamber than it had been and to have far more former members of the House of Commons in its ranks.
There are normally two honours lists a year: The Queen’s birthday honours and the New Year’s Honours. This is to maintain the pre-democratic character of the institution that it is the monarch who dispenses honours rather than an elected politician. Although the British media is always careful to dismiss the Queen’s role as simply colourful pantomime, the reality is that the Queen has far more power than the public imagines and anyone who seriously believes that Prime Ministers or politicians can simply decide unilaterally who to honour without any reference to the Palace is, simply put, a fool. Equally some honours are put forward solely with the intent of pleasing the Queen or having some people loyal to her in the Upper Chamber. The recipient of a higher honour such as a peerage or knighthood has to swear an oath to the Queen, so their primary loyalty is to the monarch and not to the the politician who put their name forward.
There is a third occasion for an honours list, and this is the resignation of a Prime Minister, either in the middle of a term or because he has lost an election. Known as a Resignation Honours List these are overtly personal lists where the PM has far more latitude in deciding who to honour.
What is the “Lavender List”
THE Lavender list was a nickname coined by the then Prime Minister’s Press Secretary and former tabloid journalist, Joe Haines, to describe what he claimed was the undue influence exerted by Lady Falkender over the Prime Minister. He claimed that Harold Wilson’s Resignation Honours List was not in fact drafted by the Prime Minster but by his closest aide, Lady Falkender, on her lavender coloured notepaper.
Harold Wilson and the British Media
THE “Lavender List” nickname gained rapid traction amongst the British newspapers due in large part to the fact that Fleet Street, and a sizeable proportion of the Labour Party were hostile to Harold Wilson. Unlike Tony Blair, who worked hand in glove with the British media, Labour Prime Minister’s before the advent of “New” Labour had uncomfortable relations with the British media. Harold Wilson, experienced unrelenting opposition from the British newspapers because of this institutional opposition but also because of his small Parliamentary majorities, which meant that the media had a powerful effect on his ability to effect legislative change. Negative publicity can change the public’s mind about elections sufficient to effect a switch in voting preference. A small number of lost seats would create a “swing” that would put Wilson out of office and stop his programme. The Labour Party also had an internal culture of mistrust towards the newspapers, which were seen as acting as a brake on the Labour Party’s ambitions for changing the economy or society. This was not simple paranoia: One of the largest political scandals of the first part of the Twentieth Century centred around the Daily Mail’s attempt to influence the election of the Labour Government of Ramsay Macdonald in 1924 by splashing a smear based around a purported letter from a senior member of the Bolshevik government of the Soviet Union supporting the Labour Party. Due to the atrocities committed by the Soviet State after the October Revolution, Bolshevism was viewed with extreme dread in Western Countries: indeed Hitler’s later election in Germany was largely due to his tough anti-Bolshevik stance. So any association between the democratic left within the West and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was toxic for their chances to win an election. The “Zinoviev Letter” later turned out to be a forgery, faked to provide a vehicle for the British newspapers to smear the Labour Party in the run up to the election and thus swing public opinion enough to prevent them forming a government. Because the main suspect for having faked this letter was MI5, Britain’s internal security and intelligence agency, this letter later took on mythic qualities within the Labour Party’s subconscious as indicative of the dirty tricks that the British establishment would play in order to keep the Labour Party out of office and protect the moneyed interests that ran the country.
The Sale of Honours
THE sale of honours is a thorny subject for the British state. Kings and Queens in the pre-democratic age, would routinely reward loyal courtiers or families with lands and titles for services rendered. Despite the façade of nobility many old titles were gained through what today would be characterised as “shady practices”. Although British monarchs are almost never personally short of money, funds were required for the prosecution of wars, including civil wars, or heading off rivals attempting to usurp the title of King and Queen. As the King or Queen had routinely engaged in such practices, there was no law against the sale of honours. In the democratic age, with the rise of political parties and party fundraising machines, titles were often granted to “benefactors” who had donated large sums to the party in power. The most egregious of these was the garage sale of honours in the wake of World War I where the Liberal Party under Lloyd George openly sold honours with abandon until the practice was explicitly criminalised in 1925.
The sale of honours, however, continued albeit behind a velvet curtain. This was not unusual in the Conservative Party, but a sort of class conscious "plebeian puritanism" often inhibited Labour Prime Ministers from operating in a similarly self-serving way towards honours. This cultural inhibition coupled with a distaste for titles in general as inegaltiarian, and the sizeable caucus within the Labour Party that wanted to abolish honours and especially the House of Lords, meant that that Labour Prime Minister’s often dispensed honours to party hacks, or members of the intelligentsia rather than benefactors. The Labour Party’s funding system, based around large Trades Union’s bloc funding, obviated the need for such activities. As this source of funding shrank in the post-Class War era and was replaced by the largesse of wealthy businessmen under New Labour, the issue resurfaced.
So what was the Issue with the “Lavender List”?
AS mentioned, in the 1970s the Labour Party did not need party donations from wealthy businessmen nor did it seek or encourage them. Indeed the Labour Party itself was basically hostile to wealthy individuals in general and businessmen in particular, so the recipients of honours in the 1976 Resignation Honours List never donated any money to the Labour Party. Many of the recipients did however donate money to the Prime Minister’s private office and here is where the problems started. British Prime Ministers, alone amongst the heads of government in the western world were in a peculiar position when it comes to the expenses of office. Described as a “Nation of Shopkeepers” by Napoleon, the British tend to have an extremely small minded approach to the expenses of public officials. In a strange inversion of common sense, the British believe that the less money they allow public officials to use in the commission of their jobs the less likely they are to become tempted by extra-mural monies. The effect of this in the case of the Office of the Prime Minister is bizarre to say the least. White House staff, for instance although they are personal appointees of the President, are all paid out of the public purse; but the same was not true for the political staff of the Prime Minister who had to pay their wages and expenses personally. Equally when the Prime Minister is entertaining foreign dignitaries he is fed and watered lavishly by the public purse, but his personal living expenses while Prime Minister had to be paid for out of his own pocket: an invidious position to be in, parodied in the TV programme Yes, Prime Minister. Needless to say, only the British could think this made sense since it truly is shopkeeper’s logic: penny wise and pound foolish really ought to be the national motto. Thus we come to the central allegation of the “Lavender List”, which was that many of the names had only oblique connections to the Labour Party, many were wealthy businessmen, which in an era of bitterly fought class warfare was seen as “siding with the enemy”, and many had donated funds not to the Labour Party but to Harold Wilson’s Private Office.
Joe Haines’ allegation therefore had at least two parts:
Did donors to Harold Wilson’s Private Office receive honours in return for money?
Did Lady Falkender really impose the names on Harold Wilson against his will?