House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION select COMMITTEE
Thursday 17 November 2005
LORD WILSON OF DINTON and PROFESSOR PETER HENNESSY
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on Thursday 17 November 2005
Dr Tony Wright, in the Chair
Mr David Burrowes
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger
Mr Gordon Prentice
Witnesses: Lord Wilson of Dinton, GCB, a Member of the House of Lords, and Professor Peter Hennessy, FBA, Queen Mary, University of London, examined.
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 1956-1959 - 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 side 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, Alistair 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 Alistair 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 Alistair 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 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.
Q20 Grant Shapps: Peter, what I am really interested in is the split here between ministers and civil servants. Five years might be exactly right for civil servants, I do not know, plus the change in government. Surely for ministers it is fair game? The one thing this whole thing teaches me is that I should go home and starting writing a diary tonight, if only as a defensive mechanism.
Professor Hennessy: You have been corrupted, Mr Shapps!
Q21 Grant Shapps: Not at all. We are here to look after ourselves and do not need to be molly-coddled by more rules and regulations, certainly not by laws. Ministers and politicians should be able to take care of themselves.
Professor Hennessy: You wait until you are a minister!
Q22 Chairman: Richard, could I bring you in because I would like to know if you would assent to this prescription that Peter is giving us about what we might do about this?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I do not think I would lay down the time period like that because I can think of some things which I would not want people to write after five years and some things in less than five years which I would not object to. What Radcliffe is saying is that over time, the strength of the confidences does gradually weaken, and it does depend a bit on context. He says that some things which are matters of national security can be revealed very soon after they are over because they suddenly cease being secure. Other things you need to protect for much longer than that. I think that is true of some confidences. There are personal matters to do with ministers I worked for 30 or 40 years ago which I would not want to reveal.
Professor Hennessy: Give us one example.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: Certainly not.
Q23 Kelvin Hopkins: I am fascinated by what I have heard, particularly because I was Brian Sedgemore's party chairman in the 1970s, so I used to get these events retold to me in the pub every Friday night. It was exactly as you say. My impression is that what has really changed from that era is the politics. We lived in an era of the mixed economy, social democracy and pluralism in those days. Now we live in a world driven from the centre by radical, right-wing politicians. It is driven by neo-conservative international policies - foreign policies and neo‑liberal economic policies, and pluralism has been pushed back. Have not the tensions arisen because of that change?
Professor Hennessy: I think there is a lot in that. If I was on the receiving end of the command style premiership of your nominal leader, because you obviously do not subscribe in full to the leadership principle, I would get profoundly irritated. If, as it is sometimes put to me, the kids at Number 10 come on the phone and say "Tony wants", I would be tempted to say, "bugger off" and, if I did not, I would make a note about the absurdity of their suggestions at what I do as a secretary of state. I have never known a period when secretaries of state and their permanent secretaries are such diminished figures. I sometimes wonder how they can look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. The kind of catharsis through memoir, which is what it is, is what this leads to. If you operate a court system of government, whether it is the Chancellor or the Prime Minister, those who are on the receiving end of the court find what weapons they can when they can, and it stores up real trouble. If you are not naturally collegial, which the Prime Minister is not though he is trying terribly hard - and you used to spend hours to persuade him to be more collegial, did you not, Richard - you are just asking for it, are you not? The worms turn, and the worms turn on the page, and who can blame them?
Q24 Kelvin Hopkins: Yes, indeed, and I must say I cannot wait for the memoirs of our Cabinet which meets, apparently, for five minutes just to listen to the Prime Minister, and then goes away again. It used actually to discuss papers and not to have votes as such but develop consensual approaches to government, which is no longer the case. I will be fascinated to read all these memoirs. Do you think this is leading to some sort of breakdown or change, a reversion to the way we were, or are we now into an entirely new era of working where the pages will not be turned back?
Professor Hennessy: I know everybody says this because it is the kind of fall-back position, but if we had a civil service act that repainted the lines between who does what within the governing marriage, including the special advisers, it would be a start. The good chap theory of government was based on what Sidney Low over 100 years ago called "the tacit understandings on which British Government depends". All that has gone. There is a tremendous tendency, which is what gave you such anguish, was it not, that that is traditional stuff; it just gets in the way; we have public service delivery. Once the good chap theory has come to the equivalent of a combination of management consultancy babble and self-interest, it has gone really. I know you think, like Radcliffe, it can all be restored, and I hope it can, but we have had nothing but this since 1997, with the occasional reversion to trying to behave a little bit better. Mrs Thatcher was just the same. Remember after Westland, she tried to behave for a while and listen to people in Cabinet. The real thing to do when you are watching these people is rather like intelligence; you watch people when they do not think you are looking at them - when they are on automatic pilot - because they do not think they are under particular scrutiny, that is when they give themselves away on the way they really conduct government. I think you are closer to the model than Richard's desire to see sides to them which can be played upon, playing upon their decent side. Maybe I am entirely wrong about this. I come back to this: if you could broker a modern version of the good chap theory of government which took into account modern realities, you really would have pulled off something quite formidable. I think it is linked to your known views that we need a civil service act, and that is not a suggestion which is greeted with throbbing warmth across the road by anybody. There was not one person in the Cabinet who was in favour of it, and even some of your wretched colleagues at the Wednesday meeting of permanent secretaries were not wholly in favour. If you can make that happen and link it to this, I think you will have done the state some service, you know.
Q25 Chairman: I can see Richard steaming.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am not steaming at all. I just wish to make it clear that silence does not indicate consent.
Q26 Kelvin Hopkins: The point I make in our discussion, and I agree entirely with what you said, Peter, but this is really for Richard, is this: during the Benn-Sedgemore era, Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell, and I am sure you remember them both very well, used to meet Tony Benn in the morning before the civil servants got to him and discuss with him the policies of the day. The civil servants would then speak to the Secretary of State afterwards. They used to get very upset about this, apparently. Now we have a situation where the special advisers are the bosses, in a sense. Rather than just advising the minister and then the minister going to the civil servants, they are now interposed, in a sense. They see the minister and the civil service much more, and the top layer of the civil service, certainly under Sir Andrew Turnbull, seem to have become more politicised; it is all part of political grouping conspiring against Parliament to get things through. When did that change take place, or is my description not right?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am, of course, out of it now. This may sound like a commercial, but if you look at The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, which we published in 2001, you will find in it a description of what sorts of work a special adviser may do, and that is not consistent with the description of the role of special adviser that you give. I think the truth is that the role of special advisers is different between different ministers at different periods. I think Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell, who you rightly guess I do remember, were in a very powerful position in that department. Your account of how they operated, I think, if anything, is an underestimate. They were interposed between Tony Benn and the department quite often. I can remember one occasion that Brian Sedgemore has written up - it is nearly 30 years ago - when I was instructed by the secretary of state and, in the end, by the permanent secretary to negotiate a Cabinet committee paper with them. It was a very tortuous process but certainly they were there between the secretary of state and the department. I will not go into it.
Q27 Kelvin Hopkins: I remember it well. I know the sort of thing.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: It illustrated the point that a lot of the issues people talk about today in relation to special advisers are not new. All the issues that people are talking about now were very much alive and kicking 30 years ago. One needs to pull back a bit from the suggestion that we are all poor figures now and it was all marvellous in the past. I hesitate to attribute it to an objective and independent professor, but I think some of that is to do with the passing of years. I think you do tend to see the past in a rosy glow. There is one point I would like to come back to, which is a point that Gordon Prentice raised. I think some things are changing. One of them is the willingness of, let us say, the press to make a civil servant more of a figure. Another is the willingness to criticise civil servants through the press without your ever actually knowing, if you are the civil servant, who is making the allegation. I think that is an insidious and bad trend because it is unfair. The hands of civil servants are tied. You cannot answer back, just as you cannot answer back to criticisms in a memoir. There ought to be something in the code which makes it very clear that that is unacceptable, whoever does the briefing.
Q28 Chairman: Julia is going to bring us back to memoirs. As Kelvin has a start on it, I do not want to lose the moment just to ask you both this. I do not want to quote back at you stuff you have been writing, Richard. You have been expressing disquiet about the way in which government is conducted now, and indeed Peter has, too, perhaps more predictably. Although you are saying, in response to questions, that there was never a golden age, you do not think there has been a great falling off, you have been writing in a way which suggests that there has been a falling off. Something has gone wrong with the process of government; the quality of decision-making has begun to be attenuated. Chris Foster, as you know, has written recently something called Why are we so badly governed? He is someone who has worked for both governments over many, many years. It is quite a compelling indictment of the way in which news management now drives decisions; Number 10 overrules departments; the quality of material produced by government White Papers has deteriorated. Just the business of doing government is not as robust as it used to be. As I read you, you pretty much assented to this.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: The things I have been saying are things I actually said to this Committee when I was Cabinet Secretary. I was not always sure you heard me but I have been saying these things for a long time. I think we are in the middle of huge constitutional change. What I have always argued is that there is a trend towards devolution, in formal constitutional terms: devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and a rebalancing between the state and the individual. It is all on the record from previous sessions. At the same time, I think at another level there is a trend towards greater centralisation. As always happens, the important things that go on in the constitution happen unobserved. The way in which local government has become an agent of central government, which is now declared by government ministers, rather than a democratic local tier of government, is a hugely important development, which has passed by virtually without much debate. The concentration of power within government makes it all the more important that within government there are proper processes to ensure and regulate the use of power and the checks and balances which we need to have in place. I think it makes the role of Parliament, the role of this Committee, all the more important. There is nothing very radical in that. It is just an observation as to how the constitution is changing and the importance of the roles of different parts of the constitution, the constitution ensuring that power is held in check and in balance.
Professor Hennessy: I think we have to remember that for all your sterling efforts as a Cabinet Secretary in private to get better minute-taking, to have proper Cabinet discussion, even the occasional Cabinet paper, what it took to get to the point where we have some restoration of the useful bit of the past were two accidental reports: the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Inquiry. But for the tragic death of Dr Kelly, there would have been no Hutton Inquiry. If the American President had not instituted an inquiry into intelligence-related policy-making on the road to war in Iraq, we would not have had Butler either. But for the light shone by those two completely aberrational inquiries - they involved disclosures way beyond the 30-year rule stuff, let alone the Freedom of Information Act - we would not have had you being alerted to the extent you have been, the press being alerted to the extent they were, and people like me being able to quote chapter and verse rather than general anxieties. That is what it took to get a partial restoration of papers and proper minute-taking. You might as well have pleaded in vain in private to get that back. This is no disrespect to you: it took an external shock with quotes from chapter and verse in both of those reports, whole rounds of experience in there, including diaries, and David Omand having to reconstruct from his notes because no minute was taken of the rolling discussion in Number 10, with people coming in and out about whether to tell the press it was Dr Kelly if they thought it was, if they got the name. That was monstrous. You were worried about that in private from the beginning but you could do damn all about it. It took those two accidents to alert Parliament and the public. We should never forget that. Not one minister wanted either of those inquiries, did they?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I should just say again, for the record, that Peter Hennessy is very kindly giving evidence on my behalf but I am not assenting to it. I feel myself being manoeuvred into a position where others are giving evidence on my behalf and writing my memoirs, which I am not going to do.
Q29 Julia Goldsworthy: This is the flip side of what Grant Shapps was saying, and so rather than should there be a separate code for ministers and civil servants, is it not more about what is driving the authors that is the most important thing in terms of whether it is appropriate or not, whether it is a desire to set the scene of some historical record and give insight into the political processes, whether it is for personal revenge, some kind of personal experiences, or it may be even money. If they are going to get huge advances from newspapers, is that what is driving them? Gus O'Donnell, when he gave evidence to us, said he was looking into ways in which the Crown could claim royalties as a way of overcoming that particular problem. I would like your comments on that?
Professor Hennessy: There is a precedent to that, if I remember. Reggie Jones (RV Jones) wrote Most Secret War. He was a lovely man and he had taken away to Aberdeen University as a young man in 1946 a large amount of very sensitive material on which he wrote that book. This was really official secrets stuff. He waited until the Ultra Secret was up but it was still very hot in the Seventies. An unspoken deal was done, which I think we got hold of and published in The Times whereby they did not want to prosecute Reggie because he was a thoroughly good thing and just imagine the court case. So they did a deal whereby I think at least a part of his royalties from Most Secret War went to the Crown. I do not think that was ever admitted to, but in fact it was the case. If I can find the cuttings from The Times, it would be there somewhere. So there is a precedent for that. That was a one-off because they suddenly realised that Reggie had this treasure trove. He really did like the people he had left in Whitehall. It was the good chap theory working; it was one of those very British compromises. I do not think you could institutionalise that. It is interesting that Jeremy Greenstock has agreed not to publish; I have not checked that. We must not forget that the Director of the Ditchley Foundation has abided by the good chap theory of government. You need to check that. You will be able to do that rather more easily than me, but I think he has agreed not to publish, at least for the time being.
Q30 Chairman: The publishers did not want it after it had been taken care of.
Professor Hennessy: Is that what it was? You are ahead of me on that.
Q31 Mr Liddell-Grainger: He lost his contract. I want to take you back to one diary we have not talked about and that is Spycatcher.
Professor Hennessy: It was not a diary. It was a memoir, written by a fruitcake.
Q32 Mr Liddell-Grainger: It may be, but it ended up with the Cabinet Secretary, now Lord Armstrong, making a journey with a briefcase because the establishment had told him to go out to Australia and try to silence this bloke.
Professor Hennessy: You are cruel remembering that but it is true, he was upset at Heathrow, was he not?
Q33 Mr Liddell-Grainger: A little, and I think the journalist may be one of those in the room. Was that the downgrading of the Cabinet Secretary, having to go out to try personally on behalf of the British Government to stop a diary, a memoir, whatever, which was highly damaging? There was an enormous amount of stuff in there about burglaries, break-ins, the role of the Wilson Government. It was absolute dynamite. It was not stopped. It was leaked back into the country as a sort of dirty little memoir and it was being sold on street corners. Is that not the sort of downward spiral?
Professor Hennessy: Robert Armstrong should not have gone. It should have been the Attorney General. Robert had done very well.
Q34 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Who made him go?
Professor Hennessy: If I remember, Robert had done extremely well in the Westland inquiry before the Defence Select Committee. He had interposed his body, which is one of the functions of a Crown servant, between ministers and here. Permission was not granted to anybody else from the civil service who was involved in the Westland affair to come. Robert - fireproof Robert - took it all upon himself, and he did extremely well. If I had been Robert, I would have refused to go to Australia on the grounds it should be the Attorney General because it had to be a Minister of the Crown. In those days, we had Attorneys General, and the Attorney General should have gone.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: Chairman, I have always thought that Robert Armstrong was much maligned over that episode. He has been very restrained in not publishing his version of it, which is his right, and I would respect that. I think one day this is one of those cases where history will start putting the record right. You do have to have a sense, if you are in public service, that in time if injustice has been done, it will be put right, but sometimes you have to wait rather a long time.
Q35 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Surely that is a prime example of where the civil service were ordered to deal with the situation which had been created because somebody had done something which the government could not control? The political side said that they did not want to know about that and that they would send out the sacrificial lamb with his briefcase and give a right to him on the way out to Australia, and the whole thing was a disaster.
Professor Hennessy: Nobody could quite have anticipated the degree to which that judge - and I am libelling the Australian judiciary - was determined to get revenge for dominion status. It was quite extraordinary to watch all of that. I do not think anything in Robert's formation - and he had been around the block a few times - had prepared him for that.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I do not think Robert Armstrong, or anyone, could have anticipated quite how that was going to develop in that case.
Q36 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Stella Rimington wrote a fairly boring book. When that came before the censors, can you say how much was taken out? Was there anything to be taken out? Was there stuff that you felt was going down the wrong line and you said, "enough is enough"?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: The answer to your question is: yes, quite a lot had to be rewritten, to my recollection.
Q37 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Do you think for spy chiefs - and Scarman would be fascinated to read this - and for that sort of level of persons within the Intelligence Service there should be a different, dare I say it, law, statutory obligation, on people who are within the intelligence community? You were talking about somebody who took all his archives up to Aberdeen, Reggie Jones. That is obviously an early example. Should there be a bit more for intelligence and the military?
Professor Hennessy: That is difficult because the precedent for Stella Rimington's book was Sir Percy Sillitoe's book Cloak without Dagger, which he had written after ceasing to be Head of MI5 in 1955, and to which Mr Attlee wrote a forward. It was an extremely boring book. It was mainly about being Chief Constable in Kent, which even in those days was not the most riveting job in the public service. It was very hard to tell Stella not to because of the wretched Sillitoe book. As the British system of government works on precedent and custom and practice, that is what they had to go on, was it not? Not that I am recommending this to you, but I suppose you could, as part of the Intelligence Services Act, if you had wanted in 1994 put in a statutory bar on ever saying anything to anybody. Their indoctrination processes tell them that anyway. Again, it is the world we have lost. Ten thousand people kept the Ultra Secret for 20 years. Is that not extraordinary - 20,000 people knew at least a part of the Ultra Secret and they kept it for 20 years. Those days are gone.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I would repeat the point, at the risk of repetition, that the home civil service has a remarkable record in observing the duty of confidentiality. I do not think there is evidence that that is sliding.
Professor Hennessy: The intelligence services have been pretty mute. Even somebody who is interested in that world understands that they have to be. We have found two ways: on the back of the Spycatcher affair, they got a counsellor to whom they could go if they were anguished about pensions or anything else. That has worked pretty well. There is also the oversight committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I know is not flesh of your flesh quite but it has done an extremely good job. On the back of that Spycatcher affair, reforms were put in place, which I think together have worked pretty well. Do you not?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think so.
Q38 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Shaylor had to be brought back from France. He did exactly the same; he skipped out of the country and basically in the end he was extradited. Surely again that shows an example of where an intelligence officer decided to publish and be damned. Whether the stuff he said was true or not, I do not know. Again, the Government got dragged into something where they had to try to get somebody back who had written a memoir which was potentially very damaging to the country. There is another example of where we are fairly neutered as a nation. That literally ended up with an embarrassing situation and the government in France trying to get this bloke out.
Professor Hennessy: He was convicted, as was Richard Tomlinson, if I remember. I think there has to be an extra special duty of care on people in the intelligence world. This is an extremely nasty world. When they make the cases they do, and if stuff is disclosed that gives away techniques or even agents - not that Shaylor or Tomlinson gave away agents but I think Tomlinson did name some people who were officers - that is extremely difficult because it is very hard to recruit people if you think it is going to come out. It is an obvious link and it is one they make all the time, and I understand that. In many ways, they are a separate case from what we are talking about. Having said that, for Christopher Meyer and Jeremy Greenstock, and indeed you and your colleagues, the intelligence product is something that is very much part of your world. You may not be actually in it, but the sensitivity of the stuff, because you are the customer, does affect you. It is important that it is related to this, but the actual duty of confidentiality on an officer in MI5 and MI6 or a GCHQ employee is very high, the highest there is really, and I understand that. I think we all do. We have found a way in this country of mitigating that kind of blanket ban where you did not even get anything after 30 years, not a whisper, until the Waldegrave Initiative, however old it was, even though the Cold War was over. We found a very sensible way of reaching quarter-way houses, if not half-way houses, on this as has the Houses of Parliament. In a funny way Richard's optimism about sensible procedures is still possible, you can rely upon people's decency, it is a combination of the good regiment discipline, the kind of morale that these outfits should have, plus codes for guidance, he's worked in that area and that is the most delicate area of all. On the back of the Spycatcher nonsense beneficial reform did occur, did it not?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I just wanted to give a plug for official histories. I do think it is important that people have an understanding of what goes on in Government and I think the official history programme is an important part of that. Before I ceased to be Cabinet Secretary we commissioned, with the Prime Minister's approval, a series of official histories in which academics are allowed to have full access to all the papers and write up the history of a particular episode or period, like the Falklands War which I think has now been published. I think that programme may fairly soon be running out and I do just hope this Committee may take an interest in ensuring that it continues to run because there is a real public interest in that programme.
Professor Hennessy: I agree with that.
Q39 Chairman: The problem is the Daily Mail does not produce a big chequebook for official histories.
Professor Hennessy: Why are we obsessed with the Daily Mail? Everybody runs in fear of them. You should just tell them to bugger off. That is twice we have mentioned the Daily Mail.
Q40 Chairman: Far from running in fear, people seem to be attracted by their chequebooks.
Professor Hennessy: Yes, I suppose there is that. Mr Prentice was engaging in a wonderful piece of displacement activity suggesting the Labour Party was in trouble because of the Daily Mail. I thought you had quite a lot to do with it yourselves, with all due respect, my dears.
Q41 Chairman: I do not think we have got to the bottom of this. You are telling us that the 'good chap' theory has broken down.
Professor Hennessy: Not completely.
Q42 Chairman: No, but it is breaking down and something needs to be done. Richard, I think you are saying the 'good chap' theory is still intact and we do not need to do very much.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I did not say that. I said I would try and strengthen the 'good chap' theory.
Q43 Chairman: You said earlier on that you thought it was a bad thing that people were keeping diaries in Cabinets and you were sitting round the table with people who you knew were going to publish a record very, very quickly. All that is the world in which we live, that is what is happening now. Either we say, "Well, there's nothing we can do about it. The good chap's era has finished," or we have a proposal. I have not heard a proposal that is going to do anything about this at all.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: Can I give you the odd proposal or two? Of course people keep diaries and of course people are thinking while they are in government that they will write their memoirs and you know that will happen. What matters is that you should have a process which they observe. I am also arguing that the process has not broken down. The fact that there have been people who break the rules does not mean that the whole process has come to an end. What you need to do is to reassert it and not to condone cases where people have not observed it. I would like to see the Management Code of the Civil Service assert more clearly than it in fact does (I was looking at it last night) an obligation on civil servants and on ministers who want to publish to consult the Cabinet Secretary at an early stage, when they have a typescript, not before they have done a deal with the newspaper and would like to go to press within the next month, and then to discuss with the Cabinet Secretary and, if need be, to accept his judgment on international relations and on security and to do a compromise. The Radcliffe Report says you have always got to compromise in the end, but there does have to be a negotiation and I think that way can still work if people will observe it. It may be the process needs to be made explicitly part of the contract of civil servants. You cannot make it a contract with ministers because ministers are appointed, they do not have contracts, but if you can have a process which you can enforce then I think the system may still be made to work. I do not accept that it has broken down.
Q44 Mr Prentice: Julia mentioned Crown Copyright and Peter told us that he did not think it was a runner. What is your view?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: It is quite a complex area. One of the things that was established in the Blake case is that in some situations you can hold people to account for profits of what they have earned. I think that is quite hard to apply. It might be possible to incorporate in contracts for civil servants, including former civil servants, a provision that anything which they published on the basis of their experience in the Civil Service would attract Crown Copyright unless they had authorisation for its publication. I am not saying that is possible. My recollection is that that is a possibility. The argument against it, which is one that I think Peter might put, is that that is far too comprehensive. I think there is a public interest in people being able to talk on the basis of their experience about how government works and I would not want one to feel that everything one said was instantly a breach of copyright, which it would be under that approach. We are moving into an age of freedom of information and it is rather odd to toughen up in that way when we are going for freedom of information. I am not that enthusiastic about it but I think it is still a possibility which, if we really feel that things are breaking down, people might have to explore. If they went down that road I think they would need to be very clear at the same time about the situations in which it would be exercised; I think that would have to be part of the deal. It is worth remembering that everything a civil servant writes now in the course of their job is covered by Crown Copyright, that is my recollection, so it would be an extension of that provision.
Q45 Julie Morgan: Your proposals are that the existing process could be improved on the basis of how it exists at the moment.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: It could be strengthened a bit, yes.
Q46 Julie Morgan: I am quite curious as to how that process operated. Did you personally read every one of those books? Was it your personal duty to read them?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: Can I describe to you what happens? You are sitting in your office and suddenly a box arrives with a lot of typescripts, typically. It is about enough to fill one box of the kind that you take home in the evening. I would read it, yes. I would skim read it very fast partly because it was quite a treat.
Professor Hennessy: You have led a sheltered life!
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I have. You sit and you skim this book and with a skim read you can get a pretty good idea of (a) whether it is really going to be a serious headache or not and (b) the areas of Government that it is going to cover. You identify those passages which are of interest to other government departments and you send them to your colleague who is head of that department and you ask for comments by a given time. Usually people always want this back as quickly as possible, which is why I stress this question of the timescale. Then you will get back from departments - and you have someone who will kindly collate it for you in the Cabinet Office - a list of comments. One of the things they will do - being civil servants, they are congenitally unable to let any error past - is that they will list for you a huge number of things which the minister or the individual has got wrong. I always found myself saying, "You're not required to accept this but we think you have got the following factual errors," and there would be pages of things that the civil servants picked up. It goes with the job. Secondly, you would then have a list of comments where people would want changes and I would go through those and look at them and some of them would be ones which you would think were nit-picking and you would send them to the author and say, "It's up to you, you may want to think about this. I do not think it is that important.". There would be some where you would suggest to them positively they should make a change but you would make it clear there is not an issue. And then there would be a few - I would try to make it as small a number as possible, it usually was only two or three or four at the most - where you really thought there was an issue and you would make it clear that these were ones that you really wanted to press and discuss with them. You would send it back with roughly that categorisation and then you would get a letter back and usually there would be very little dispute. I can recall one or two cases of national security, one or two cases where it was a comment on former civil servants, where in the end it was a matter for the person writing whether or not they pressed it. I do not recall any case where in the end we were not able to reach agreement pretty amicably. It was a pretty swift process. I would always bias myself towards publication and say does it really matter if they publish this, but if I thought it really did matter then I would press the point, although usually there were very few points of that kind where you had to make an issue of it.
Q47 Julie Morgan: Presumably Christopher Meyer's book went through that process.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I do not know. We got a letter suggesting they did not have time to do it. I have not talked to Gus O'Donnell, I do not know what happened in that case, but I would guess in his shoes, if you find yourself faced with that problem, the danger is that if you start asking for changes all you are going to do is provide publicity for the serialisation, which you do not particularly want to do. In the Stella Rimington case where I said to her initially "Please don't do it", that conversation was then used in The Guardian as a platform for "the book they tried to ban" and for a fairly one-sided account of that discussion. So you do have to think about that too.
Q48 Julie Morgan: But you think this process is the correct process, do you?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think it is correct. Ten people went through it and it was not a problem. Only one person simply did not observe it. I may be out-of-date, it may be things are declining now, but I do not regard that as evidence that in my time the whole thing was cracking up.
Q49 Chairman: What about the idea of having a Committee on Memoirs?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: You are tempting me, Chairman! I read your speech in the House of Commons on Tuesday where you were talking about the proliferation of regulatory bodies. I am not going to be tempted by you into suggesting another one.
Q50 Chairman: So that is not something that attracts you?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: No.
Q51 Mr Burrowes: In your experience the problem is not the issue of disagreement between the Cabinet Secretary and the author because you are saying that usually you will be able to come to an agreement, are you not?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: You usually resolve it.
Q52 Mr Burrowes: So there is no need for any further committee of Privy Counsellors, is there?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: No.
Q53 Mr Burrowes: In terms of looking at what has happened since, you do not see the 'good chap' theory going out the window to a certain extent and a need now to tighten things up in terms of that committee?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: In setting up a committee to oversee it?
Q54 Mr Burrowes: Yes.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I happen to agree that we have quite enough bodies of one sort or another to regulate behaviour without necessarily impressing the public that we are doing it better, though I think standards have improved. I do not think there is a need - but, as I say, I may be out-of-date - for any committee to oversee the process.
Q55 Mr Burrowes: In terms of improvements, you say there is not a need to change the process in relation to the Cabinet Secretary looking through and considering the documents which have gone through ten people. Is the problem with the author and the way they have applied the rules? Perhaps the lesser obligation is towards the old principles of honour and so forth.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: Yes. Julia Goldsworthy was talking earlier about motive. I think there are two or three motives usually at work. One of them, with ministers, is to set the record straight and I think, as Radcliffe says, that is a legitimate motive for a politician, a minister, to want to put their side of the story when they are so much in the spotlight. A second motive is making money out of their experience. Although it is inevitable to some degree, I think the spectacle of civil servants rushing forward into print in order to make money out of it is very distasteful. If one could find a way, like on the copyright route perhaps, where it really became a problem then I think you would have to do that. The third, which is very hard to deal with, is vanity or pride. Sometimes when people retire they find it very difficult to come to terms with the sudden loss of identity. One of the reactions which takes place with some people is a feeling that you need to go into print to assert who you were or to get off your chest a sense of grievance. I would think it is highly desirable that people should not do that and they should find some other form of therapy rather than going into print. However, that is just a personal view.
Q56 Mr Burrowes: You are playing down the problem in a sense by saying it is still a few occurrences and although the system is generally working, there needs to be a reassertion of radical force. I am trying to accommodate that with your views about the trend towards the concentration of fewer hands and whether that has essentially corrupted modern government and whether there is a need for more of a fundamental change.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think you are putting together two rather different things. The alternatives are either a voluntary system or, ultimately, legislation. I think the arguments against legislation are strong. I am sure we could all put together a Bill which set up a tribunal to oversee the system, which laid down a process and which had penalties and criminal sanctions or civil sanctions, I do not know, for people failing to observe the process. I think that would be very heavy handed and I would want to try and keep out of that if I possibly could. What I am saying is that there clearly are cases at the moment which if I was a Cabinet Secretary would be causing me dismay, but I would still want to reassert the voluntary system and find ways of strengthening it rather than going into legislation, that is all I am saying.
Q57 David Heyes: I want to stay on this Crown Copyright idea. Would it be feasible as a variant on that to introduce a contractual condition for serving senior civil servants whereby any future publication of memoirs would be done on a profit-sharing basis? This might be a source of finance for the official histories that you were promoting to us. I think it is less than £200,000 a year goes into all of the official histories that are published from time to time, less than the serialisation figure from a newspaper. It is a thought. I just wondered what your views were on it.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: My understanding is that Gus O'Donnell is reviewing this area. I think he said that to you in his evidence. I would have thought that is the sort of thing you might want to suggest to him he might want to look at. I am sure he will read this evidence and ask for advice on it. I do not think I am not going to venture an opinion on it.
Professor Hennessy: Can I add support to the official histories point because I am not one of nature's official historians but I am very pleased when people like Lawrie Freedman do it. It is a half-way house between all the anxieties. Lawrie saw everything for the Falklands War, including the intelligence and there was very highly sensitive diplomatic stuff to do with Chile and aid and all the rest of it to the British campaign. Although I am not one who would ever sign up to do it, the product of those official histories is crucial to the rest of us in the historical business. It is intrinsically desirable, and the amount of money is secondary. One of the great moments in the war for a nerd like me was when Sir Edward Bridges, Richard's predecessor but six, commissioned Sir Keith Hancock in 1942 to get the civil histories of the war ready and Hancock, an Australian professor, said, "This perhaps isn't the right moment given what we are facing in the world.". And Bridges said, "It is very important always to have a fund of experience because you might have to go through a version of this again", and in a way it was an act of faith. There was no money in 1942, every piece of manpower was devoted to winning the war and yet the Bridges' generation had no doubt this was an integral part of the state, it was the collective memory and it was an aid to not going wrong in the future, taking the lessons where they were applicable. It worries me a great deal that this should even be a question. We are a vastly richer nation now than we were in 1942, we are not facing that kind of emergency and yet there is this kind of "Can we flog it off or do we have to do it at all?" mentality. It is deeply dispiriting and it would be an own goal by the state if we did that. I was very relieved when Richard got the Prime Minister's approval to put that new set in just before he retired. It worries me deeply that it should even be a question. They vary in quality, but everything does, but they are extraordinarily useful instruments for the state, and I think there should be more of them. You could go into partnership with people like the British Academy if you wanted to have some way of doing it with them, but to give up on it altogether just shows how present centred the current generation of politicians can be. I am not one of those who believe that their memories do not work before 1994, but on some occasions you would think that criticism was indeed justified.
Q58 Grant Shapps: I think it has been a tremendously helpful evidence gathering session. The two of you, if you do not mind me saying, would make a great road show at some stage, if you felt that way inclined, maybe as part of your own memoirs. I think we may have stumbled upon a couple of the solutions here, one of which came up when Peter was talking about the current situation as you perceive it amongst the Cabinet, the lack of the consensual relationship between the Prime Minister and where the power lies. You said one of the aspects of this is that Cabinet Ministers tend to go off and write their memoirs quite early, sometimes to settle scores or get their side of the story out. Do you not agree that that is in fact the system in the longer term working quite well, because what will happen is that someone will go away and you will end up with a Blunkett book, the Blunkett book slates some other Cabinet Ministers and they are then unhappy with it? What then happens is that the government as a whole starts to look shabby. We saw it in the Major government, we are seeing it in this government and the electorate gets fed up. So democracy deals with this entire issue when it comes to the ministers as opposed to the civil servants.
Professor Hennessy: That is an interesting thought. The one theme that Mo's memoir and Robin's and Clare's share is the lack of proper Cabinet discussion, that is their greatest beef. Cynics might say, "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? Why did they not resign earlier? Why did they put up with it?". One of the most depressing phenomena is the kind of nodding parrot head phenomenon whereby when the Prime Minister says something five ministers swing in behind him loyally - the CQ or "crawling quotient" is off the Richter scale - and yet when they break loose they say, "Well, it wasn't like that really". The gap between front of house and what they really think in back of house is so profound now and it leads to ever greater public disdain for you lot as a profession. Nobody is deceived, that is the other thing. They think that we are absolutely naïve. What an unendurable week you went through at Blackpool.
Q59 Mr Prentice: Why do you keep looking at me?
Professor Hennessy: On Saturday five of them said "Gordon is the one and it will all be wonderful". Do they go to a training school? They are the most unfortunate people in the world.
Q60 Grant Shapps: Can I keep you on the point here? You are demonstrating the extent of the problem amongst the current Cabinet and possibly past ones but you are ignoring the solution, which is more of a medium-term solution, which is the electorate will see this, they will get fed up with it and eventually they will go for a prospective government which says, "What we are going to do is come in and have much more of a Cabinet-style government.".
Professor Hennessy: Whether they believe you or not is another thing.
Q61 Grant Shapps: That is absolutely true. Governments eventually may do it. One is reminded of the way in which, perhaps ironically now, the Bush Presidency started with this idea of a cleaner White House than had been there for a while.
Professor Hennessy: They all say that. The first people they have to delude are themselves. They cannot help it.
Q62 Grant Shapps: You are critical of short-termism and the speed with which these memoirs come out. I would have thought you were attracted to a more medium-term solution, which seems to me to be already there in the checks and balances of politics and democracy and eventually the lot will get thrown out simply for the fact that they have started to look too presidential in style.
Professor Hennessy: I wish that did turn elections but I do not think it does. Who knows what turns elections? It would be nice if clean, decent and restrained government was a factor.
Grant Shapps: There is evidence that if you get sleazy enough then you get kicked out. You only have to look at 1997 to see that. I would suggest there is probably evidence, although we will have to wait another three or four years to find out, that if the Government continues to be this presidential base with so little collective Cabinet responsibility and so on and so forth -
Q63 Chairman: The problem with that theory is that Clement Attlee got kicked out as well and he is your great hero and mine, Peter. There is nobody more procedurally correct than Clement Attlee.
Professor Hennessy: He wrote the most boring set of memoirs.
Chairman: The idea that there is some self-correcting mechanism at work here I do not think is true.
Q64 Mr Prentice: Peter, you have previously referred to the Cabinet as being the most supine ever.
Professor Hennessy: Yes. It has got a bit of life since I said that last but it is not much life.
Q65 Mr Prentice: When Campbell cashes in his pension and publishes his memoirs do you think the floodgates are going to open and we are going to have a whole series of memoirs published by Cabinet Ministers who feel really wounded by what Campbell said?
Professor Hennessy: The opening shots will be people rebutting what he says the next day after the first serialisation. My press chums will have a field day doing a ring round and the resentment levels will be immensely high and they will all be waiting for it. Alastair has got remarkable gifts, not least he has got a turbo charged pen and he is not the most charitable to those he regards as either misguided or feeble, which is a pretty large category of the political class. Everybody will be ready. It happened a bit with Dick Crossman but not very much. I think everybody is anticipating that there will be a gap before the memoirs and the diaries come out.
Q66 Chairman: It would be a cruel irony, would it not, if we toughened up the rules and deprived Alastair of his pension?
Professor Hennessy: I am crushed at the thought!
Q67 Mr Prentice: We have been talking about people in the intelligence community, civil servants and politicians. What about senior police officers? We have got Sir John Stevens who said some very critical things about the Home Secretary and David Blunkett chose not to respond.
Professor Hennessy: His defence was, "The Pollard book rubbished me and, therefore, I am putting the record straight.". You can always express resentment, whether justifiably or not, and be cross about it in putting the record straight. Once this tit-for-tatting, which I think is what we were talking about right at the beginning of this session, has got out of hand, it is very hard to get it back.
Q68 Mr Prentice: Sir Ian Blair would be party to the most sensitive discussions and could come up with a book entitled "The 90 days - What Blair really said". Do you think books and memoirs from people like Sir Ian Blair should go through some clearance procedure? The late Ben Pimlott said tongue in cheek that everyone should keep a diary. Would you agree with that, Peter?
Professor Hennessy: Yes. I know you are not encouraged to as a senior official but I think you can after a decent interval. The Macmillan government thought of prosecuting Sir Maurice Hankey, the first ever Cabinet Secretary, because he was going to use his diary for a book called "Supreme Command" about the Great War. This was in 1958 and that war had ended in 1918. Ever since then I think Cabinet Secretaries have been asked to say voluntarily that they would not keep diaries post-Hankey, is that right?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: Nobody ever asked me. I am not publishing diaries, memoirs, anything. I have absolutely no plans to do it.
Q69 Mr Prentice: You have kept a diary, have you?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I kept my engagement diaries and press cuttings. I did jot things down, it is what Radcliffe calls "the private discharge of psychological tensions", but I have not looked at it all. I do not know what it adds up to.
Professor Hennessy: I will help you sift it!
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am certainly not publishing diaries or memoirs.
Q70 Mr Prentice: Presumably those will go to the national archives when you pass on.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: They will probably go into the waste bin.
Q71 Julia Goldsworthy: You said you were dismayed by what you had seen happening more recently. What would you do if you were still in a position to overcome these problems?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am not going to get into the business of telling my successor in public how to do the job. He is a tremendous appointment, he has my full support and I think he will turn out to be one of the classic Cabinet Secretaries.
Professor Hennessy: Chairman, I think we are both agreed that we want you to sort it out. We have to say that because we think that.
Chairman: The danger of inviting you as a witness, Peter, is that you always come and ask us to sort things out, which we are never quite able to do. We have had a splendid session. As Grant says, not only was it a wonderful performance, we have had lots of real substance in there too. You should certainly take to touring. There would be an audience for it everywhere. Richard, I thought your suggestion that instead of writing books these people should go and have some other kind of therapy is one that needs some serious consideration. Thank you very much indeed for coming along.