On the 16th March 1976 Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister, announced his resignation to a shocked and surprised nation. Almost as soon as he'd resigned rumours began to circulate about the names that would appear on his resignation honours list. The story soon circulated that the list had been compiled by his private secretary
Maria Falkender on lavender note paper and was thus dubbed the 'Lavender List'.
It was Joe Haines, who had been Wilson's press secretary since 1969, who was responsible for describing the note paper as lavender. He has since retracted this view, citing the authority of his wife who categorically insisted, on seeing Falkender's notepaper, "That's not lavender, that's lilac". The journalist John Cole, (a long time friend and supporter of Falkender) was also to disparage Haines's sense of colour, declaring on BBC Radio 4 that the notepaper was in fact pink. As it happens Falkender herself has since asserted that the paper "was pale pink, not lavender".
It seems that in the days following his resignation, Wilson compiled a series of rather scrappy notes listing the honours that he wished to bestow, following which his private secretary Falkender decided to impose some order on the process and simply "grabbed the nearest piece of paper ... and rewrote Harold's list neatly". But irrespective of whether the notepaper in question was lavender, lilac, pink, or indeed pale pink, it has gone down in history as the 'Lavender List', whilst its notoriety has little to do with the colour of the paper and more to do with what was written on its surface.
Wilson's resignation honours list was, as one account puts it, "much leaked, much delayed and much attacked". Indeed James Callaghan (who succeeded Wilson as Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister) announced an inquiry into the leaking of its contents even before it had been formally published. When the resignation honours list finally appeared on the 27th May 1976, around 100 Labour MPs signed an early day motion disassociating themselves from its contents, whilst the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee noted that "their reservations over at least half the list had been ignored".
The Lavender List included honours for the showbusiness impressarios Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont, and the businessman James Goldsmith, then chairman of Cavendish Foods, all of whom had previously provided some kind of financial assistance to Wilson and his party. It also named George Weidenfeld, who was Wilson's friend and publisher, his personal doctor Joseph Stone, and Falkender's sister Peggy Field (for services to charity). For a little light relief Wilson gave an OBE to Mike Yarwood, a comedian whose career had been largely based on his impersonations of Wilson.
Individually speaking, any one of these choices might have been defensible, but taken all together they gave an impression of favouritism and graft. On the 2nd June 1976 Wilson was forced to issue a statement defending his choices, and was later overheard muttering, as he was giving evidence before a Select Committee, "Anyway it wasn't my list". Many have interpreted this widely reported remark as meaning that it was in fact Falkender's list, playing into the well-established gossip that circulated regarding the extent of Falkender's influence over Wilson. (Even to the extent of portraying her as some kind of machiavellian puppet-master who manipulated Wilson to do her bidding.)
The reality was that her contribution seems to have been restricted to rewriting Harold Wilson's rather messy collection of notes into one neat list, whilst the banal truth was that as soon as Wilson announced his intention to resign, he was subject to intense lobbying from many within the party who wanted to use the opportunity to pay off old political favours. Which of course was the grubby truth of the Lavender List; it was indeed a series of pay-offs made in return for services previously rendered.
Some time later two of the recipients of Wilson's largesse were to attract some unfavourable publicity. Firstly there was Joseph Kagan, of Gannex mac fame, and the recipient of life peerage, who was convicted of theft and false accounting and served ten months in prison, and then there was Eric Miller, chairman of the Peachey Property Corporation who got a knighthood, and later committed suicide rather than face a similar fate. Thus, if anything, the reputation of the Lavender List has become even more notorious with time, and symbolic of the darker and grimier side of Wilson's government.
In 2006 the BBC produced its own dramatised version of events, entitled The Lavender List, with a script written by the columnist and author Francis Wheen. According to the offcial BBC press release this programme "reveals the aberrant behaviour of the last Wilson government, and exposes its rotten core" and its broadcast resulted in a small storm in a teacup when one Cameron Doley of the law firm Carter-Ruck announced that Maria Falkender was "extremely angry" about the production and was seeking damages and costs from the BBC. Others however pointed out that the BBC's dramatisation was largely based on the accounts given in the Downing Street Diary by Bernard Donoughue and Glimmers of Twilight: Harold Wilson in Decline by Joe Haines and that the Lady Falkender had neither complained about those allegedly factual accounts nor threatened them with legal action.
- Matthew Paris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals(Revised edition, Chrysalis, 2004)
- Joe Haines, The truth about Wilson's 'lavender list' 28/02/2006
- Neil Tweedie, Falkender threatens to sue BBC over Lavender List drama (18/05/2006)
- Kenneth Cranham, Celia Imrie, Gina McKee, Neil Dudgeon and Dominic Rowan star in The Lavender List 16.11.2005