“WHEN I want a peerage, I will buy one like an honest man.” The words of newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth may date back more than a century, but the reaction to David Cameron’s resignation honours list proves the awarding of titles remains a prickly old business.
An OBE for his wife Samantha’s stylist, Isabel Spearman, is among those that have raised eyebrows. His recommendation of Will Straw, director of the Remain campaign during the EU referendum, for a CBE raises fresh charges of cronyism.
George Osborne, meanwhile, will join the likes of Stephen Hawking and Desmond Tutu as a Companion of Honour – the reward created by George V to recognise services of “national importance”.
The only surprise, one wag has noted, is the absence from the list of Downing Street pet Larry the Cat.
But controversies of this kind are nothing new. David Cameron’s choices have drawn comparisons with the infamous ‘Lavender List’ compiled by Huddersfield-born prime minister Harold Wilson when he left office in March 1976.
“The whole thing should have been reformed donkey’s years ago,” says Wilson’s former press secretary, Joe Haines. “There have been several sordid lists in the past. They are usually payback for monies received and I regret that the same thing happened under our government as happened under Conservative governments. David Cameron has just overdone it. But that’s what prime ministers tend to do.”
It was Haines who christened the Lavender List, after the colour of the notepaper on which it was originally drafted. The paper in question (which Haines’ wife insisted was in fact lilac) belonged to Wilson’s political secretary Marcia Falkender, though she has always denied playing any part in choosing the names that appeared on it.
They included Wilson’s friend Joseph Kagan, the founder of Elland-based Kagan Textiles, which made raincoats from the waterproof Gannex fabric he had invented. Wilson wore the coats and made Kagan a life peer.
But, by the end of 1980, Baron Kagan of Elland was behind bars for stealing from his own companies. Another recipient was property tycoon Eric Miller, despite growing rumours that the financial dealings of his companies had not been entirely above board.
Sure enough, investigations uncovered the siphoning off of large sums from his business, Peachey Property Corporation, and Miller committed suicide in 1977.
“He blew his brains out as the police were coming for him,” Haines notes bitterly. “Lord Brayley got a peerage a few years earlier too. He died while awaiting trial at the Old Bailey. The whole episode was not a happy event in our lives.”
Another name on Wilson’s list was Marcia Falkender’s older sister, Peggy Field, who received an MBE. As personal secretary to Mary Wilson, her principal duties were to type up the poems and ditties penned by the prime minister’s wife. A pre-cursor, some might say, to the OBE for Sam Cam’s personal assistant.
Haines says he succeeded in having two names removed – that of boxing promoter Jarvis Astaire, later awarded an OBE in 2003 – and his own. He was adamant that he didn’t want to be associated with those on the list.
“When Harold offered me a knighthood I told him that I wanted to abolish the House of Lords, not strengthen it. It was possibly the most conceited remark I’ve ever made in my life. But I think it was a disgrace and there’s no justification for it.”
“The real problem is that it devalues the honours given to decent people,” he says. “I’m not saying get rid of the honours list altogether. There are many people that deserve it. But it is being disgraced.”