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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 November 2005, 13:39 GMT
The theory of the "good chap"
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Former Cabinet secretary Sir Richard Wilson is without doubt a "good chap".

Sir Richard Wilson
Wilson wants voluntary code
Former British ambassador to the US Sir Christopher Meyer, and other recent ex-public servants turned authors, probably are not.

At least, that was the picture painted as a Commons public administration committee took evidence about the "problem" of political memoirs.

The "good chaps" theory - as propagated by political historian Peter Hennessy - are those ministers and, far more crucially, civil servants who understood the tacit rules which cover the publication of diaries and memoirs.

They understood what was right to publish and what was not, and at what distance after events they should reveal anything at all.

It all harked back to a more genteel age when good chaps ran the country and could be relied on, pretty much, to do the right thing.

Broken down

Nowadays, needless to say, that has all gone. The age of innocence has passed and it is open season.

And, from some points of view, that is not all bad. The public deserve to know how they have been ruled.

Sir Christopher Meyer

But do they have a right to know how they are BEING ruled? That's another matter to do with the timing of revelations.

Sir Richard clearly believes that the good chaps theory has not quite broken down - although he believes Sir Christopher was disloyal - but certainly needs strengthening, voluntarily.

Suggesting some changes to the current system, he said civil servants might be expected to submit manuscripts to the Cabinet Secretary for review not just before publication but before serialisation in newspapers.

Key issue

Taking crown copyright on such publications to remove financial incentive would be complex, but a possibility, he added.

And perhaps the key issue, in his mind, was the timing of any publication.

Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham's memoirs were deemed fair as they came after she had left power and events had moved on.

Sir Christopher Meyer's were not because they dealt with individuals still in post and issues still running. Good chaps would see that, others might not.

Sir Richard also declared that the civil service actually had a "remarkable record" of keeping government secrets to themselves.

That should keep some ministers awake at night.

Listen to Michael Heseltine criticize Sir Christopher

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