chapter  4
71 Pages

Iron Fist in Velvet Glove – Sir John Hunt 1973–79

At the start of John Hunt’s six years as Cabinet Secretary the Conservative government led by Edward Heath was brought to its knees by the miners and the power workers. Towards the end of his tenure the Winter of Discontent wrecked the Labour government led by Jim Callaghan. During the intervening years one

emigration during the period 1961-1981 averaged 20,000 p.a.1. Britain was in retreat as an international power, the economy was faltering; there was no clear national strategy and for much of the time the government was divided. It took a combination of dedication to the public interest and sense of personal destiny for Hunt to hold the central machinery of collective government together. At home the nation faced indeterminate elections, weak governments and labour militancy; abroad Britain struggled to live within its means. There were four Prime Ministers: two Conservatives provided the bookends of the period (Heath and Thatcher); two Labour politicians led during the middle years (Wilson and Callaghan). Some historians and contemporary commentators have described a Britain close to being ungovernable;2 and towards the end of the 1970s the political consensus between the two principal political parties came to an end.3 In January 1973 Britain joined the European Communities. Later that year the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East and a subsequent dramatic increase in oil prices were spectacular destabilising events. Government struggled to understand the behaviour of the foreign exchange markets, to respond to labour militancy and to control public expenditure, culminating in the United Kingdom’s application for assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF ) in 1976. A continuing Cabinet split over European policy threatened unity, as did the existence of a rival focus of power in the elected National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. Meanwhile, pressures grew for more open government and for reform of Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, 1911. Hunt found himself in the eye of the storm around publication of the posthumous ministerial diaries of Richard Crossman. In retirement Hunt described how the Cabinet Secretary’s role tilted away from running the collective elements of government towards acting as a personal adviser to the Prime Minister.4 He and the Head of the Policy Unit under Wilson and Callaghan (Bernard Donoughue) had jockeyed to have the last word with the Prime Minister. In 1978 he said, ‘I have made it a practice in this job never to let people in other Departments see copies of minutes which I have sent to the Prime Minister but which have not been copied elsewhere: and whenever I have departed from this practice I have nearly always had cause to regret it.’5 There are few specific criticisms of his advice. One is Professor Alex Kemp’s Official History of North Sea Oil and Gas which claims that Hunt gave bad advice on the viability of a North Sea oil fund,6 but these are rare – a more telling challenge is whether, on politically difficult issues, he pushed hard enough for a clear decision – putting the preservation of collective responsibility first. In matters of military confrontation he was a dove – challenging (without obvious success) why Britain was so keen to prosecute the Cod War when it was accepted that the government’s long-term strategy for the fishing industry was to reduce the distant fishing fleet7 and consistently supporting serious negotiation with Argentina. The impression is that for all the excellence of analysis the appetite for hard decisions was poor. Fudge rather than crunch. Few Ministers resigned despite deep splits over policy. Some of Hunt’s contemporaries drew an unfavourable comparison with

formed the view that he did not change significantly between the 1950s and the 1970s.8 Practical rather than intellectual, his character was straightforward, tough, demanding, direct, determined. A strong believer in teamwork, he was a brilliant chairman who knew what outcome he wanted and set about achieving it as efficiently as possible, encouraging others to help on the way. He was a superb organiser able to handle a large array of issues simultaneously and he had a prodigious memory, seemingly able to recall at will the arguments and conclusions of meetings.9 He was noticeably effective as the personal envoy of the Prime Minister in relations with Dr Kissinger in the USA and with the Federal Republic of Germany over the results of the 1974 Defence Review. He showed powerful insight into industrial innovation in analysis of the opportunities that would flow from micro-processors; yet scant feel for commercial realities when discussing British Airways’ preference for Boeing aircraft, commenting that British Aerospace, ‘needed additional orders from BA for 1-11s which would do no more then reduce BA’s potential profitability.’10 Similarly when, in September 1973, Pierre Messmer (the French Prime Minister) appointed Ingénieur Général René Bloch to conduct an enquiry into Concorde from the standpoint of project management it was the potential for strategic and political disagreement with the French that concerned Hunt despite well-known concerns about time and cost overruns.11 Cabinet paid tribute to, ‘a wise and skilful adviser and counsellor, and indeed friend, to members of successive Cabinets.’12 Colleagues, however, sometimes felt that he overreached himself in promoting the centrality of the Cabinet Office.13 His judgement revealed at the 1983 Permanent Secretaries’ Conference, was that all four Prime Ministers that he had served found the Whitehall machine flabby and unresponsive; ‘Seen from my perspective,’ he reflected, ‘the time and effort he or she has to expand to achieve quite simple results and the difficulty in exposing different options to him are ridiculous. Heath didn’t do the political side [of the role]; both Wilson and Callaghan went as tired men.’14 Why then was there not more success with institutional reform in Whitehall? Heath, Wilson and Callaghan all came to the conclusion that they wanted to split the Treasury between an Office of Manpower and Budget and a Finance Ministry, though all shrank from doing so.15 Attempts to reform the Public Expenditure Survey, to give a lead on transparency in government, and key initiatives to improve the handling of cross-departmental issues such as the Joint Action on Social Policy came to little. Part of the answer lies in the composition of the various Cabinets and the thin Parliamentary majorities they enjoyed. But the machinery of government problems lay deeper than simply reform of the Treasury: power had tilted towards Departments and away from the centre; as Hunt’ put it: ‘Certainly no Prime Minister can, or should be able to, override the Cabinet: but [a] greater sense of purpose, greater consistency and more efficiency at the centre could help. Throughout the six years I have been worried by insufficient communication downwards; inadequate information upwards; lack of alternative ideas

Planning for the succession to Trend began in March 1972. Sir William Armstrong17 and Trend himself were the lead advisors but the appointment lay in the hands of the Prime Minister, then Edward Heath. Armstrong was widely thought by contemporary Permanent Secretaries to be devious, often acting behind the scenes without their knowledge.18 However, he gave unequivocal support to Hunt: ‘My assessment of Mr Hunt is that he is absolutely first class and outstanding among his contemporaries . . . what marks him out . . . are his personal qualities of drive, energy and leadership. He combines a strong and stable personality with the ability to get on with other people both inside the Service and in public life generally.’19 By this time Heath and Trend were increasingly divergent in their outlook but likely to be saddled with each other until early 1974 when Trend would reach 60 (then the compulsory retirement age for civil servants) – Heath had grown increasingly impatient with Trend and keenly awaited his successor, John Hunt who, as Trend’s deputy, had shown a good grasp of Heath’s managerial style and would mitigate the Prime Minister’s frustration that William Armstrong could not be designated Chief of Staff 20 and would maintain the parallel position of the Cabinet Secretary with the Head of the Home Civil Service.21 Foreshadowed by the praise from Armstrong, Hunt arrived in the Cabinet Office on 24 March 1972 for a third spell in the Department – on promotion with particular responsibility for the co-ordination of economic policy. His earlier tours in the Department had been as Private Secretary to Norman Brook (1956-58) and Secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee (1960-62). His career had spanned five Departments with two overseas postings (Ceylon and Canada). He had not, however, served on the Prime Minister’s staff. He could be reasonably confident that, barring accidents, he would take over as Cabinet Secretary.22 A widower since 1971, with two young children, he remarried in September 1973. His second wife was the widow of Sir John Charles, the former Chief Medical Officer, and the sister of Basil Hume, then Abbot of Ampleforth and later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Trend offered advice that it would be nigh on impossible to fulfil the roll of Cabinet Secretary and bring up young children without a wife’s support;23 and on hearing of their engagement, Heath said: ‘Tell them to get married quickly because they won’t have time later.’24 Two weeks later Trend left to become Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford. His retirement had been announced well in advance. His parting gift was characteristically modest. He chose The Oxford English Dictionary and asked that the Cabinet should sign it, which they duly did and presented it to him at his last appearance as Cabinet Secretary on 27 September. On his last working day a poignant entry in his appointment diary simply says, ‘4 pm – the Prime Minister will telephone.’ Then at 5 pm Michael Moss (the Establishment Officer)25 arrived to collect Trend’s security passes and remind him of his obligations under the Official Secrets Act. Sic transit Gloria mundi. Hunt carved out an enhanced role for the Cabinet Office. This he did partly through the development of a new style of Cabinet Office, traditionally concerned with steering and recording collective Ministerial and official discussions

on behalf of the Prime Minister to align governmental actions. In appointing Hunt Heath had taken on board his credentials as pro-European and his talents as a potentially active co-ordinator of policy across Whitehall. The European Unit (EU) and the Civil Contingencies Unit (CCU) were central to the new style. Formally, both had been suggested by Trend (in May and August 1972 respectively) but Hunt had made them real. They marked a turning point in the role of the Cabinet Office; as one contemporary put it, ‘he turned the Cabinet Office into a proper central department.’26