The dishonourable historical past of honouring a PM’s acolytes


The author is professor of political historical past on the University of Nottingham

In the eyes of his remaining admirers, Boris Johnson is an rebel — not least in his breaking of conventions. But relating to traditions which serve his personal pursuits and people of his closest supporters, he’s as conformist as essentially the most stick-in-the-mud member of “the establishment” — possibly extra so.

This is confirmed by reviews of a proposed resignation honours checklist, suggesting that the outgoing prime minister plans to ennoble scores of loyal Tories, a lot of whom have little advantage past being propagandists and get together donors. Johnson’s obvious goal is twofold: to reward those that remained loyal to the bitter finish and to bolster the numbers within the House of Lords, which can ease the passage of future payments.

Since the top of the nineteenth century, departing prime ministers have loved the fitting to appoint for quite a lot of honours those that gave them private support throughout their time in Number 10. As the historian Ben Pimlott put it, they have been “generally a matter of giving gold watches to old retainers”: in 1979, James Callaghan even gave a CBE to somebody who helped run his Sussex farm. They are, in essence, glorified thanks notes, albeit ones which generally enable the fortunate recipient to sit down on the Lords’ purple benches.

Not each prime minister has taken benefit of this conference. In 1957 Anthony Eden, beneath a cloud after mendacity to the world concerning the position of British forces within the Suez disaster, waived his proper. Fifty years later, Tony Blair additionally declined the possibility to reward his closest associates: previous to him stepping down the Metropolitan Police had investigated whether or not some peerages got in return for loans prolonged to the Labour get together. Perhaps due to that embarrassment Gordon Brown additionally left workplace in 2010 with out this nod to custom.

But most have taken the chance to publicly recognise those that helped them behind the scenes — even Sir Alec Douglas-Home, prime minister for lower than a 12 months. Home’s checklist was suitably quick, although, and principally for service given by the likes of a longtime Downing Street telephonist, his official driver and two private detectives.

Most such awards go the general public by — curiosity focuses as a substitute on the incoming cupboard. Even so, when David Cameron revived the conference in 2016 and Theresa May adopted swimsuit in 2019, the variety of shut advisers promoted to the peerage rose considerably in contrast with precedents. This was, nonetheless, small beer in contrast with the scandal with which Johnson’s proposed honours have been in contrast: Harold Wilson’s 1976 Lavender List, so-called for the paper on which the outgoing prime minister’s preliminary alternatives have been supposedly written (a couple of pedants recommend it was lilac or pale pink).

When Wilson unexpectedly stepped down a remaining few believed the nation would possibly flip to him once more sooner or later — shades of Johnson’s “Hasta la vista!” quip at his ultimate PMQs. But horrified reactions to the proposed recipients of honours when the names, like Johnson’s, leaked out put paid to that. For the Lavender List went nicely past rewarding loyal retainers. Some recipients appeared like they have been being paid for favours acquired or to be distributed. This ought to have been no shock. Wilson regarded the honours system typically cynically, meting out knighthoods, peerages and lesser rewards primarily to strengthen his private energy and recognition. He awarded the Beatles MBEs in 1965.

Like all prime ministers, Wilson needed to submit his checklist to the cross-party political honours scrutiny committee, whose job was to determine on its appropriateness. About half have been rejected (TV character David Frost was denied an early knighthood) whereas at the very least one proposed peer (financier James Goldsmith) was decreased to a knight. But the committee allowed different controversial awards.

As he slowly descended into Alzheimer’s in retirement, Wilson was unable to shed the taint of the Lavender List. One of his knights died by suicide in 1977 whereas beneath investigation for fraud and three years later certainly one of his friends was jailed for theft. Today, it is without doubt one of the few issues for which the person who gained 4 basic elections is remembered.

Boris Johnson’s repute will probably be colored by greater than a questionable checklist of supporters elevated into the Lords over the last gasp of his premiership. But that’s solely as a result of, in contrast to Wilson, he’s already engulfed in an unprecedented sequence of scandals.

As a consequence, there are calls, as in 1976, to finish this custom. Tony Benn believed on the time that Wilson had pushed the system to date into disrepute it needed to break. And but it’s nonetheless with us. For whoever replaces Johnson in Downing Street will realise, as he now does, that this time-honoured conference serves them very nicely certainly. Where would a first-rate minister be with out these bobbing round loyally in hopes of a bauble or two?