1 December 2016

Meet the men who really ruled Britain


On Wednesday lunchtime, a remarkable meeting took place. To mark the 100th anniversary of the role of Cabinet Secretary being created, the six surviving holders of the post assembled at the Institute for Government in St James’s – including the incumbent, Sir Jeremy Heywood.

With 209 years of Whitehall experience between them, these were the men who, it could be argued, have really run the country over the past four decades – who have sat at the Prime Minister’s right hand around the Cabinet table, whispering and nodding and taking the notes.

Like their fictional counterpart, Sir Humphrey Appleby, they kept the wheels of government spinning, channelling the will of the Prime Minister down to the Civil Service and the advice of the Civil Service back up. If there were a collective noun for them, it would surely be “an Establishment”.

With Sir Jeremy (2012-present) in the chair, the stories flowed (the video is available here). Those of us in the audience were told what it was like to be in the room when the decision was made to take back the Falklands, when the world financial system went into meltdown, when the mortar shell landed in the Downing Street garden.

Richard Wilson (1998-2002) described the chaos on the day of 9/11. With the Prime Minister summoned back (initially reluctantly) from addressing the TUC, he (Wilson) took the unilateral and possibly illegal decision to shut down London City Airport. He and others racked their brains to think of potential targets – Big Ben, Buckingham Palace – and warn those there.

On 9/11, the man with the key to the emergency tunnel had gone on holiday

Meanwhile, a Keystone Cops flavour was added by the fact that the switchboard had gone down, the various contingency planning groups were all stuck on team-building excursions, and the man with the key to the secret escape tunnel via the MoD had gone on holiday without telling anyone where it was.

Robert Armstrong (1979-87) talked about the time Michael Heseltine resigned over Westland halfway through a Cabinet meeting, which was then adjourned and reconvened with a replacement Defence Secretary (all dutifully recorded in the minutes).

Later there was Gordon Brown, who, when asked to outline his Budget by Tony Blair, resentfully gabbled through the details so quickly that no one could actually understand what he was saying – save for when he slowed down to growl: “No more boom and bust.”

The assembled mandarins also ticked off the crises they and their Whitehall colleagues had successfully overcome: the Miners’ Strike, the Falklands, the first Gulf War, the fall-out of the financial crisis.

If Whitehall is an old boys’ club, here were the old boys

Yet it was difficult not to detect a certain air of self-congratulation in the air.

If Whitehall is an old boys’ club – well, here were the old boys. Smooth, plausible, cricket-playing men called Robin and Andrew and Richard.

All, except Heywood, are in the Lords, where Sir Jeremy will doubtless join them. About the most glaring sign of diversity, apart from the fact that Gus O’Donnell (2005-12) had kept his south London accent, was that Andrew Turnbull (2002-5) was wearing a pink shirt.

This was company in which Wilson was a self-professed “outsider” – because he had only done two years at the Treasury and no time at all at No 10.

The most glaring sign of diversity was Lord Turnbull’s pink shirt

As they compared their memories, you could see how the apostolic succession had worked – promising newcomers drafted into the centre, being given a pat on the back and a shove up the ladder by their elders.

When the topic of private-sector experience came up – Heywood is a rarity in actually having had some – Robin Butler (1988-98) insisted that it wasn’t really as important as having worked across departments, in particular in having been in a spending department, so you knew what it was like to experience the Treasury from the other end of the knife.

And there was a staggeringly complacent moment, right at the end, when Heywood insisted that the Civil Service’s project management skills as now as good as anyone in business’s.

This on the very day that CapX had published an extract from Margaret Hodge’s new book about her time in charge of the Public Accounts Committee, making it extremely clear that they are not.

Recently, of course, the Civil Service has received stick for the way that it weighed in quite so enthusiastically on the Remain side of the EU referendum, and for its associated failure, at David Cameron’s insistence, to plan for a Leave vote.

O’Donnell made the seemingly revolutionary suggestion (to general agreement) that in future, perhaps the Civil Service could use the purdah period to do contingency planning for both outcomes of any vote.

Heywood defended his team by saying that actually, they had done some such work – albeit only after prodding from Parliament. They just hadn’t been allowed to talk formally to either of the campaigns, in the way that would happen with Opposition spokesmen before an election.

There was also much talk from the more recent incumbents of the added pressure produced by the accelerated media agenda, and the pace of technological change – something I address in my recent book.

But there was a deeper issue here. The Cabinet Secretary’s role is 100 years old because it was forged during wartime, when there was an obvious need for the state to join up its thinking.

Its holders get their power not just from being (in most cases) Head of the Civil Service, but from having the Prime Minister’s ear: the connecting door at the heart of a famous Yes, Prime Minister episode is their route to authority.

But O’Donnell said something unintentionally revealing when talking about the role.

Two Secretaries of State briefing against each other is not actually a crisis

Quoting Turnbull, he said that “a lot of what you do is act as a shock absorber not an amplifier” – that is to say, convincing people that the Prime Minister and Chancellor having a row, or two Secretaries of State briefing against each other, is not actually a crisis in the Black Wednesday or 9/11 sense.

But contained within that – and much of the rest of the conversation – was a sense of the Cabinet Secretary as an agent of consensus and continuity, an untangler of knots and a facilitator of agreement. Someone who calms waves rather than makes them.

The men on stage were proud that the Civil Service keeps government ticking over during periods of transition: there is not the awkward interregnum we are about to see in the US where the federal government essentially disappears until its hundreds of members can be confirmed.

But the counter to this is that a new American government can push wholeheartedly in its desired direction. Britain has never had a Prime Minister’s Department, a force from the centre pushing change through: in the Cabinet Office, it has a unit whose job is as much representing the departments to the centre as the centre to the departments.

Cabinet Secretaries act as shock absorbers, not amplifiers

The results perhaps explain the nature of British governance – the cleaving to consensus, the hostility to sweeping changes and radical ideas.

Even as Brexit imposes the greatest demands the Whitehall machine has seen since the Second World War, a sense is somehow conveyed that things will trundle along much as they ever have.

Towards the end of the meeting, those present addressed the topic of diversity – and all agreed that they wanted to see more women, more minorities, fewer people like them.

But there’s another kind of diversity that’s missing here. These were all, obviously, incredibly smart, accomplished, diplomatic people.

But it’s hard to make the argument that over the span over more than half a century, the Richards and Robins and Jeremys have in every case been the absolute best person to captain the ship of state – or at least to act as its pilot.

It is as if one of the unwritten rules of the British constitution is that every Prime Minister will end up with their own Sergeant Wilson – a polite, competent and perhaps faintly patronising figure, whispering sage advice in their ear.

But is the fact that this model of government has – despite occasional tinkering – gone essentially unchanged for all those decades a sign that the system is working? Or just that it’s very good at looking after itself?

Robert Colvile is the Editor of CapX.