Unelected but powerful – a bad precedent

Lady Falkender was born on March 10th, 1932, and died last month, aged 86. Lady who, you say? Precisely. Marcia Williams, as she then was, became, in her day, one of the most powerful figures in Britain. Ensconced in Number Ten as private and political secretary to Harold Wilson, she exercised powers that exceeded those of most ministers.

She ran his office during his four governments, but polarized opinion and became herself a source of conflict. She had the power to determine whether ministers should be promoted or sacked, and was known for her fiery and unpredictable temperament. She was intelligent and talented, and secure in her ability to enjoy Harold Wilson’s confidence and to shape his approach. This bred in her an air of superiority that led her to treat elected parliamentarians as inferiors.

She demanded a peerage, and was made Lady Falkender in 1974, to the outraged scorn of the media. Private Eye thereafter referred to her as “Lady Forkbender.” When Wilson decided to resign in 1976, chiefly for health reasons, she was unable to prevent that, and drafted his infamous resignation honours list on her lavender-coloured note-paper. Known as the “lavender list,” it rewarded cronies of dubious reputation, including some later convicted of fraud, and greatly diminished Wilson’s reputation.

She set an unfortunate precedent which has continued since. Her role rather resembled that of Pallas and Narcissus, the freed slaves who ran the Roman Empire as secretaries to the Emperor Claudius, or perhaps more ominously that of Sejanus, the Praetorian Prefect under Tiberius. It may have been acceptable to give confidants of a Roman emperor more power than government office-holders, but it sits ill with a constitutional democracy.

Enjoying the support of their Prime Minister, the unelected personal advisors and assistants can all too readily develop an arrogant disdain for elected ministers, and can be characterized by their propensity to bully and intimidate them, as well as to use the Prime Minister’s backing to thwart and overrule the decisions of ministers, and to undermine their authority.

The rise of such figures as Nick Timothy and Olly Robbins has led some commentators to point to a democratic deficit and a lack of transparency and accountability. It has been suggested that such people should be more answerable to Parliament, though it is difficult to envisage how that might be achieved. Someone who enjoys the trust and confidence of the Prime Minister can too easily become accustomed to power and intoxicated by it.

Lady Falkender set an unfortunate precedent by exercising powers that exceeded those of elected ministers, but others have followed down the trail she blazed.