Accuracy is too much to expect. Quentin Letts has always paid a generous amount of attention to my questions in his Daily Mail sketches. Again he is entertaining. As always he is wildly inaccurate. There are many Lord-Lieutenants now who are female, non-white and non-gentile. I made it it ambundantly clear that I was talking about the situation 30 years ago long before I was an MP in 1987. Below is part of the exchange of questions.
Two of the Queen’s senior representatives were given a torrid time at a Commons committee this week.
The Lord-Lieutenants of East Lothian and Cheshire were appearing at the Public Administration Select Committee. They were soon assailed for being ‘rich, Gentile, male and white’.
Lord-Lieutenants (or Lords Lieutenant, if you prefer) are the Monarch’s point men in the shires. Unpaid, they do charitable works, organise royal visits, advise on honours and recommend who should be invited to Buckingham Palace garden parties.
This all proved too much for Labour MP Paul Flynn (Newport), a veteran republican and class warrior. He disclosed that, in his days as a steel worker, he applied to become a Lord-Lieutenant. He was, alas, unsuccessful.
Addressing East Lothian’s Sir Garth Morrison and Cheshire’s David Briggs at Tuesday’s meeting, Mr Flynn quite roughly asserted that in order to become a Lord-Lieutenant it remains necessary ‘to live in a large house, be rich, have a military career, be a Gentile, male and white’. Mr Flynn alleged that all Lord-Lieutenants were Tories. When did a Lord-Lieutenancy last go to a single mum on benefits? Sir Garth, 74, although indeed a male ex-naval officer who farms near North Berwick, was by now not so much white as a distinct shade of scarlet.
He was far too polite to tell Mr Flynn to bog off — a sweeter, more courtly old gent it would be hard to find — but he was plainly taken aback by the assault and blushed hard.
Mr Briggs, younger, had less hesitation in returning fire. He told Mr Flynn he was a small businessman with a normal home. To be a Lord-Lieutenant was a privilege, yes, but it cost him a good deal of money.
Throughout, MPs used the term ‘the great and the good’ in a pejorative manner. It made me boil. What do they want instead? The mediocre and the malign? Lord-Lieutenants may not be voted into office. They may be a relic of a different hierarchy. But they provide useful local knowledge.
Sir Garth disclosed that one Lord-Lieutenant had to ring London to warn that a proposed recipient of a major honour was in fact cooling his heels in prison.
EXTRACT FROM COMMITTEE HANSARD;
David Briggs: There must be a danger, in that situation, that it becomes politicised, and it is very important that we understand that honours come from the Sovereign, not from the Government.
<Chair:> Mr Flynn—provoked?
Q1 <Paul Flynn:> I am provoked by that remark. The Sovereign has nothing at all to do with it; she approves the list. Do you know of any occasions when the Sovereign has intervened either for or against?
David Briggs: Obviously there are some honours within the Sovereign’s grant. Those are not the ones we were talking about today.
Q2 <Paul Flynn:> I know. But generally, the Sovereign is a cipher who approves what is presented to her. I think it would be wrong to blame her or to give her credit if people believe they come from the Sovereign. It is a complete myth, isn’t it, that the Queen is sitting there going through and saying, “Well, it should be going to Mrs Jones, not to Mrs Evans”. That does not happen.
David Briggs: The perception that it is seen not to be a grant from the political system is desirable.
Q3 <Paul Flynn:> Yes, but it is the truth. We deal with reality and not fantasy here.
<Paul Flynn:> We will come back to that, but on the politicisation, do you think the system is not politicised at the moment? What percentage of the Lords-Lieutenant would you say are supporters of the Labour Party?
David Briggs: I can’t possibly answer that question, Sir.
<Chair:> I don’t think we can make these people accountable for other Lords-Lieutenant, Mr Flynn.
Q4 <Paul Flynn:> Is it not true that the Lords-Lieutenancy system is highly politicised? I applied for the job description once; I applied for the job and I can give you the details of what happened. I was a steelworker at the time and I asked whether it was absolutely essential, from my studies of the Lords-Lieutenant in my area, to live in a large house in its own grounds. Was it essential to be so rich that you could do a full-time job without a salary? Was it essential to have a military career, as most of them had? To have been a Freemason, to be a gentile, male and white? Or was this just how things had gone? I know things have improved since then but we have a system of Lords-Lieutenant that is hugely politicised and does not represent society. When are we going to get a Lord-Lieutenant who is living in a council house?
Q1 <Paul Flynn:> So you do have influence on the selection. Is that with your own personal opinions in most of the cases, or your deputies’?
David Briggs: It is very rarely my personal opinions. Unless I happen to know the candidate personally, which happens occasionally—we have something slightly in excess of 1 million people in Cheshire so I do not know most of them—we use these groups in the different areas of the county to do some genuine local work. They really do try very hard to try and find out whether it is—
Q2 <Paul Flynn:> And then what happens? How many of the original list then disappear because of your recommendations?
David Briggs: I would say that more than half of papers that come to me I suggest that they are not deserving of an honour.
Q3 <Paul Flynn:> So you blackball a large number?
David Briggs: This is not blackballing. It is part of the evidence that goes to the cabinet committee, whatever they do with it.
Q4 <Paul Flynn:> Is that the end of their hopes for an award?
David Briggs: The award is not in our gift, sir. This is just part of the evidence.
Q5 <Paul Flynn:> You are an influential part of providing information to the committees that will make the decisions? Is that right? I am still not clear what it is exactly that you do.
David Briggs: I am sorry if I am not making it clear. There is a simple one-page piece of paper that comes from the Cabinet Office together with the papers.
Q6 <Paul Flynn:> Right; you get that and you tick them off and the ones—
David Briggs: We tick the paper and we write a paragraph of information: that “I have checked with my Deputy Lieutenants in South Cheshire; they have found out that the evidence in the papers is correct. Joe Bloggs has done a fantastic job and, in fact, in addition to that he has done X, Y and Z as well, and I think he is very meritorious of an honour.” It may be that we say, “Actually, we don’t think it is meritorious,” for whatever reason.
Q7 <Paul Flynn:> Are you entirely satisfied about the fairness and objectivity of your Deputy Lieutenants?
David Briggs: I am.
Q8 <Paul Flynn:> How are they selected?
David Briggs: The Deputy Lieutenants are selected by the Lords-Lieutenant.
Q9 <Paul Flynn:> So they are people who you are acquainted with or friends of yours in most cases.
David Briggs: In my case they are always people who have done something for the community.
Q10 <Paul Flynn:> Just to go back to the point we were making earlier on about the honour of Lord-Lieutenant and how this is distributed: are you happy that this is done in a fair, open and democratic way and we get a cross‑section of society acting Lords-Lieutenant?
<Chair:> It is of interest to us but it is not actually part of this inquiry.
<Paul Flynn:> It is an honour, for goodness’ sake. It is a supreme honour, I would have thought, to become a Lord-Lieutenant. You have a job for life.
<Chair:> Actually it is a good deal more than an honour.
<Paul Flynn:> You are representing the Queen on all these major occasions.
<Chair:> It carries with it some considerable obligations.
<Paul Flynn:> I am sure it does, but it also carries with it prestige and we hear that people are lusting for invitations to a wet day out at the palace. People prize these things; it is pretty inexplicable, but people do.