House of Lords

here is an article that was printed a while ago about Wilson’s lavender list

Harold Wilson’s resignation honours – why so controversial?

Twentieth Century British History

Twentieth Century British History publishes outstanding work on all aspects of the history of Britain and the British world during the long-twentieth century.  More than a record of specialized research, the journal places recent British history in conversation with the largest issues animating the historical discipline.  For a quarter of a century, Twentieth Century British History has published landmark work by leading scholars in the field, while also providing a key forum for the emergence of new scholars, subjects, methods, and fields.  The editors are committed to extending this tradition, publishing the finest work on modern British history from scholars in Britain and around the world.

On February 6 Marcia Falkender, the Baroness Falkender, died. She was one of the late Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s closest and longest-serving colleagues, first as his personal then political secretary. An enigmatic figure, she has been variously reviled, mocked, and defended since the end of Wilson’s political career. Most notoriously she was connected to Wilson’s 1976 resignation honours list, the “Lavender List.”

Twice a year, every year, the British government publishes a list of people it has decided to honour. The honours list is probably best known outside of the United Kingdom as the way people get knighthoods, though the list includes various other orders, decorations and medals to recognize various types of service. In exceptional cases, such as royal anniversaries or political resignations, the government produces extra lists to recognize special service. Throughout the twentieth century the purpose and focus of these honours has evolved with changing political and social priorities. British honours represent both a judgment of merit and one about hierarchy. Today civil servants (who have been one of the main beneficiaries of the system) portray it as a politically neutral and organic expression of national worth that rewards good people, and whose most egregiously hierarchical, imperial, and political manifestations are consigned to the distant past. In this narrative, a few past scandals were moments of individual corruption rather than revelations of fundamental problems in the system. The Lavender List was one such moment when civil servants, the press, and politicians portrayed choices about whom the government would honour as a corrupt violation of normal practice.

Of all the parties involved the civil service usually exercised the most control over honours lists. One of the few types of honours that escaped this oversight, though, were those on prime ministerial resignation lists. By tradition, these lists offered outgoing prime ministers the opportunity to recognize people who had helped them personally. Advisers, drivers, detectives, and secretaries often filled out these lists.

Wilson’s 1976 resignation list looked different. The first draft included multiple appointments to high honours–knighthoods and life peerages–to businessmen who had limited connections to either Wilson or the Labour Party. Most were immigrants who had made it good in the UK. They included notorious financier James Goldsmith, raincoat manufacturer Joseph Kagan, show-business tycoon Lew Grade, and Grade’s brother, EMI executive Bernard Delfont. Wilson seems to have chosen men in whom he was interested or who impressed him in some way. While he did not know Goldsmith well, he was impressed that Goldsmith was suing Private Eye, a magazine Wilson and his wife disliked.

This first draft was quickly leaked, sparking controversy months before the list was confirmed. Civil servants, political allies, and, indirectly, political enemies alike put pressure on Wilson to remove or change many of the senior appointments on the list, including Goldsmith, who was removed.

Wilson resisted most of the pressure for change. The final list was greeted with derision by politicians and many in the press. Labour politicians objected to the presence of capitalist entrepreneurs with limited or no connections to their party. Conservatives sneered at Wilson’s choice of men who seemed more aligned with capitalist values. Other social conservatives sniffed at their foreign (and often Jewish) origins. Some treasury officials also knew that a couple of the men, including Kagan, were under investigation for financial crimes.

Many critics portrayed Falkender as holding power over Wilson beyond her role as his political secretary. Joe Haines, a long-serving member of Wilson’s political staff, coined the name “Lavender List” to support this idea by presenting the list as an intrusion on the corridors of power that was illegitimate because of its femininity. They derided Wilson for his supposed weakness to Falkender’s persuasion.

The main official criticism of the list came from the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, a group of Privy Counselors led by civil servant, chess master, and former code breaker Philip Stuart Milner-Barry. The committee had been set up in the wake of the “sale of honours” scandal of the early 1920s. In effect, though, it laundered the sale of honours by parties by giving them an official stamp of approval. It censured the list precisely because there was no evidence of political donations to Labour on the part of the recipients. To the committee the lack of evidence for money changing hands for honours was proof of the list’s corruption because it was a break with the standard practices of party-sponsored honours sales.

Civil servants who were usually secretive about honours lists also leaked news of the undesirable names to the press. Men like Milner-Barry and Wilson staffers Haines and Bernard Donoghue attacked Falkender as unprofessional, but in hindsight their actions and responses look pettier, less discreet, and less professional than Falkender’s. For all that they drew on gendered notions of Falkender’s alleged feminine irrationality they were the ones leaking to the press, playing games, and, above all, furiously gossiping.

Wilson was already known for innovative honours. In 1965 his appointment of the four Beatles as MBEs (Members of the British Empire) had caused a minor controversy. He had also engineered an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) for cricketer and anti-apartheid symbol Basil D’Oliviera in 1969. The 1976 resignation list seemed to be a last gesture of defiance by Wilson at the system, and the scandal a last punishment by civil servants and other establishment figures for his attempts at innovation.

But the seeming violations of tradition in Wilson’s lists were to become normal in the 1980s and 1990s: popular culture celebrities, “ruthless” entrepreneurs, women Lords, and others from outside the traditional boundaries of the establishment. The political culture that derided Falkender’s influence was in for a surprise. Within three years, a woman would occupy Ten Downing Street not as secretary, but as prime minister. Wilson’s model of honours won out. Most of the controversial names on the Lavender List would look normal today.

OUP Blog


Nadine Dorries

ulture Secretary Nadine Dorries appeared in front of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee on 19 May, to talk about the proposed privatisation of Channel 4.

During the sitting, Dorries made the claim that a Channel 4 reality show featuring the now Cabinet minister had used paid actors. Dorries had appeared on the show, Tower Block of Commons, in 2010. It was designed to show MPs the circumstances of some of the most deprived parts of Britain.

“I discovered later they were actually actors… It was a Channel 4 production actually… The parents of some of the people, of the boys in that programme, actually came here to have lunch with me – contacted me – to tell me actually they were in acting school and that they weren’t really living in a flat and weren’t real,” Dorries said at the DCMS Committee.

The show’s producer, Love Productions, told Byline Times and The Citizens that: “Love Productions does not use actors to impersonate contributors in any of its documentaries or constructed factual series. Nadine Dorries took part in the making of Tower Block of Commons for Channel 4 alongside other genuine contributors, and we are confident that her claims are unfounded.”

Byline Times interviewed one of the participants of the reality show, who detailed her time spent with Dorries and some of the interactions between the pair.

Rena Spain and her family are originally from Liverpool, but have lived in London for a number of years. She said that Dorries’ accusations had affected her mental health, and that she needs to set the record straight. Byline Times and The Citizens also talked to Spain’s sister, Renesha, who confirmed her claims.

Spain claims that Dorries adopted an exaggerated scouse accent with the participants, and claims that Dorries initially asked for security to accompany her on the estate.Cheats

Tom Robinson investigates the disproportionate state investment ploughed into benefit fraud, while other anti-fraud efforts suffer from austerity

The point of the programme was for MPs to experience what life was like living on benefits. However, when the cameras were turned off, Spain says that Dorries revealed that she had smuggled in a £50 note and a credit card in her bra. The fact that Dorries had smuggled money into the show, breaking its rules, was reported at the time by various media outlets, including the Telegraph.

Spain told Byline Times and The Citizens that Dorries brought and offered the family cigarettes, and that she took “a ziplock bag of tablets” which she offered to her hosts. Spain gave an interview to the Mirror in 2010 which claimed that Dorries had offered the family Temazepam sleeping pills.

The situation between Dorries and her hosts became increasingly tense, according to Spain. On the first night, the sisters held an Ann Summers party at their flat, which Dorries refused to join in, instead choosing to drink by herself.

Spain says she questioned Dorries about employing her two daughters in her office. “She said: ‘Yes, I employed my daughter’, and I said: ‘No, you employed both of your daughters’. She went: ‘No, no, I never. I employed one, and she moved on to another job, and I employed the other’. And I said: ‘Well that’s two’, and she was trying to convince me that that was one. And I was saying: ‘I might not be from where you’re from but I know how to add up one and one.’”

Spain claims that she confronted Dorries about smuggling in the money – saying that it proved the impossibility of living on benefits. “She couldn’t answer me,” Spain claims.

Help to expose the big scandals of our era.

“That’s bullshit,” Spain told Byline Times and The Citizens, in response to Dorries’ accusation that Channel 4 had paid actors to appear on the show. “That is one big bag of lies. Unless someone else’s parents have got in contact with her but I can’t see who, I was the only person on there with my sons, so she’s got to be referring to me… I’ve never contacted her or been to lunch with her. I wouldn’t go to lunch with her even if she paid me.”

Spain said the accusation that the show had used actors hurt people on benefits in general: “It just minimises it. How difficult it is, for families and people to live on those types of estates, to be on benefits and to be poor. So being poor, are they what? Acting? Are they acting at being poor?”

Away from politics, Dorries has made a lucrative career as a writer of pulp novellas about working class Irish families in Liverpool.

“I’ve always worked, even with five kids, sometimes I’ve had two jobs,” Spain says.

A Political Vendetta?

Spain says that the Culture Secretary’s allegations have caused people to accuse her of being an actor. “A couple of years ago I was in a car accident and now I’m housebound,” she says. “You know when you can’t go out on your own and clear our name? It’s horrible, it’s horrible to have people inbox me – ‘are you really an actor?’ – I’m not an actor.”

Dorries herself has routinely voted against providing increased relief to those less fortunate than herself, including voting for a reduction in benefits spending, voting against paying higher benefits over long periods for illness or disability, and has voted against raising welfare benefits in line with current prices. 

Dorries’ claims about the programme have resurfaced as she pushes for the privatisation of Channel 4, while polls show that the public overwhelmingly disapproves of this move.

Byline Times and The Citizens spoke to Spain’s local MP, Sir Stephen Timms, who confirmed that he had spoken to her and was looking into the issue.

“It does sound as though Nadine Dorries had a rather unhappy time on this programme,” Timms told us, “and I suppose it’s possible this has influenced her view about Channel 4 since then and possibly her policy position.”

“Rena has made it clear to me that she is not a professional actor and neither are any of her children”. Timms added that: “It’s an indefensible policy to privatise Channel 4.”

Byline Times contacted Dorries on multiple occasions for a comment but did not receive a response.