I’m going to take a wild guess on something, based on 3 reasonable assumptions and a bit of background knowledge:
1. I don’t think there’s any way The Sun would launch a front page campaign to strip Jimmy Saville of his knighthood - along with a detailed description of the law change required to make it happen - unless No10 had given them some kind of nod that they were sympathetic to the proposal.
2. Hence I don’t think it was any kind of accident or a case of being under-briefed that David Cameron told Daybreak this morning that: “We have in Britain something called the forfeiture committee…that looks at whether honours should be rescinded and I’m sure that they will obviously want to do their jobs.”
3. Equally, I don’t think it was a cock-up that despite the PM’s words, a Cabinet Office spokesman then said that the question did not arise since the knighthood became defunct upon Saville’s death, thus making Cameron look rather foolish - something The Times captures here in its juxtaposition of the two headlines.
So what is going on? Here’s where some background knowledge may be helpful.
The idea of awarding posthumous honours has been around for many years, most notably with the campaign for Bobby Moore to receive the knighthood that many of his surviving 1966 peers received in the years after his death. After all, posthumous honours already exist, but only in cases where members of the armed forces or emergency services are killed while engaged in acts of great bravery.
The last great effort to introduce posthumous honours was led by myself and Ian Austin MP, with the support of Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson in 2008/09.
We seized on the campaign by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) to see honours awarded to - excuse the phrase - those British ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’ who had helped Jewish people to escape the concentration camps, usually at great risk to themselves, while working in Britain’s embassies in Germany and Occupied Europe. In many cases, their heroic deeds had gone unknown and unrecognised in their own lifetimes, a classic example of why posthumous honours are required.
To be honest, my own interest in posthumous honours was primarily football-related, thinking about all those managerial legends whose achievements in the game would have undoubtedly brought them knighthoods in today’s honours system, but who had died unrecognised: Herbert Chapman, Jock Stein, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough, to name four obvious candidates.
We were encouraged in our efforts by Gordon, who added his own cause celebre to ours: he felt that British society owed it to Alan Turing to recognise his great service and the appalling way he had been treated, not just by apologising to him in the House of Commons as Gordon did, but by giving him the knighthood that he had deserved in his lifetime.
Usually, if the combined weight of Gordon, Tom, Ian and I wanted something done, we could get it done, but on this occasion, we met an immovable object: the combined strength of the Civil Service and the Palace establishment. They were not having it, not under any circumstances, but once we got them at least to explain their reasoning, it was one of the most memorable policy ding-dongs I ever experienced.
We went back and forth over a period of weeks: they would list 10 reasons why it couldn’t possibly happen; I’d challenge all of them; they’d concede 2 but insist on the remaining 8; I’d challenge again, and so on, like boxers going toe-to-toe seeing who would get exhausted first.
- We cannot impose honours on people who do not have the opportunity to refuse them….But you do it for deceased police officers and soldiers - no-one asks them - and in any case, why not just ask their surviving families?
- We cannot second-guess the judgements made by honours committees in previous years who chose not to honour these individuals….But some of them - like the Holocaust Heroes - died without anyone knowing what they’d done; and some of them - like Chapman and Stein - dropped dead in the middle of their careers; there wasn’t time to honour them.
- We cannot make judgements now based on today’s criteria and standards and apply them retrospectively to previous eras when different criteria and standards applied….If you mean that Alan Turing couldn’t get a knighthood because he was a homosexual, then are you really saying we should stand by that?
- We only have a set number of honours to award each year; if you want to give some to dead people, you’re going to have to exclude deserving living people….Cobblers - just set aside 10 extra honours per year, and choose the most deserving posthumous candidates each time.
- To whom is Her Majesty supposed to make the award?….Are you serious: you already make awards to half the recipients of the Victoria Cross without them physically receiving it - stop being daft.
- How far back are we supposed to go? Do you want to propose that Boadicea is made a Dame?….Again, let’s not be daft. But if you want a cut off point, let’s go back to 1917 when the Honours System as we know it now came into being.
I nearly had them beaten. But ultimately they fell back on two incontrovertible arguments:
- HM The Queen doesn’t want to do it, and if the PM feels so strongly about it, he will need to take it up with her personally (I’m not sure they ever consulted HM The Queen, but were quite happy to use her name anyway); and
- All this is a nonsense anyway, since to be awarded a knighthood is really to be made a member of the Order of the Bath, etc. You cease to be a member when you die; it follows that dead people cannot be made members.
Ultimately, the dismissive way in which the second reason was presented meant that the first would never be challenged; neither Gordon nor any other PM was going to make an eejit of themselves by proposing the change if ’nonsense’ was going to feature in the first line of HM The Queen’s response.
Gordon, Ian and Tom settled for the compromise of creating a special new medal for the ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’, which was duly awarded to several individuals nominated by the HET, and only I was left to fulminate about the establishment rearguard that had denied Jock Stein and Brian Clough their due recognition. Not for the first time, eh, gents?
Now we step into the present day when The Sun launches its campaign on Jimmy Saville at Tory party conference with a nod and a wink from the political team at No10 (I’m assuming). David Cameron, who had the successful experience of leaning on the Honours Forfeiture Committee over Fred Goodwin, spies an easy win on a populist issue, and effectively throws his weight behind The Sun, only to get totally shit-bagged by his own civil servants in the Cabinet Office.
Why? Because they recognise that if they yield to the campaign on Jimmy Saville, then they concede the principle that knighthoods exist after death, and the only real, incontrovertible argument that they had left the last time this was debated would be instantly destroyed. That’s why they’ve leapt straight to that argument in their response this afternoon.
Does any of this matter? Lots of people will rightly say that the PM, civil servants, special advisers and the Palace should have better things to do than bestowing knighthoods on dead people, or indeed withdrawing them. Lots of people will also rightly say it’s another example of how the whole honours system is a discredited anachronism. But, hell, I bet those same people are more likely to have a discussion about it in the pub tonight than George Osborne’s ‘Swap your Tea Breaks for Tax Breaks’ scheme, or whatever it was called.
And there’s another reason it matters. I never saw a civil service rearguard like the one on posthumous honours in 13 years in government, not even over Dawn Primarolo’s VAT cut on tampons (and that was some rearguard I can tell you). And there was something about it which smacked of the Civil Service/Palace establishment saying to the grubby politicos: “Hands off, plebs - this belongs to us: these are our knighthoods; we decide where they go; and we’re not sharing them with any dead codebreakers or bloody football managers.”
And I’m guessing that - if the Civil Service felt strongly about this when it was just a case of a behind closed doors discussion with me about the pros and cons - they must be blooming furious at the idea of being bounced into it by the PM at a political party conference to get a cheap campaign win for News International.
Or maybe I’m just bitter. But I bet David Cameron and The Sun know the feeling this afternoon. More power to your elbow, chaps - that rearguard is cracking - and they won’t dare plead opposition from HM The Queen in this case.