The Ultimate Courtier – Sir Robert Armstrong 1980–87
Armstrong arrived as Cabinet Secretary on 27 October 1979 with a CV embossed in gold leaf. He had a consummate record as the compleat civil servant and over the next eight years he was indispensable to Thatcher’s success.’1 Yet his public reputation was damaged by the government’s struggle to prevent pub-
Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service activities.2 His triumphs were largely private, his failures visibly public. William Armstrong (no relation) judged him politically sensitive, with good judgement of people, and excelling at drafting.3 An earlier assessment, from the Treasury mandarin Sir Alan Neale,4 described him as a synthesiser, best in an established framework, better at managing upwards than downwards, not a natural delegator and someone who redrafted too much himself.5 Four spells in Treasury Private Offices and five years as Principal Private Secretary to two temperamentally different Prime Ministers (Heath and Wilson) established his eminence as master of the interplay between the two most powerful Offices in government. His drafting skills had been honed as Secretary to four public enquiries (including the 1957 Radcliffe enquiry into the workings of the Monetary System). He had had a role in the negotiations culminating in the French agreement to the United Kingdom joining the European Communities. He had also been a channel for contact with Irish groups during the 1970s. He had been the lead Treasury official on monetary policy and, latterly, had spent four years in the Home Office. During his years as Cabinet Secretary (six of them also as Head of the Home Civil Service) the government held a comfortable Parliamentary majority and the domination of the Prime Minister over Cabinet colleagues grew. In thanking Cabinet for their retirement gift Armstrong wrote of the privilege and the fun of playing a part: ‘in keeping the engines of the ship of state in good working order for “full steam ahead”.’ He believed passionately in the
support, advise and, where necessary, warn Ministers.’6 It has been alleged that this dedication inadvertently fostered a permissive politicisation of the civil service, encapsulated in ‘Is he one of us?’ However, if one political party is in power for a long time there is likely to be some identification by higher civil servants with the policies of the incumbents and Ministers’ ideas about the qualities to look for in new appointments will play out in senior appointments. The appointment from the private sector of Peter Levene as Chief of Defence Procurement and Monty Alfred as Head of the Property Services Agency pushed the rules of ‘fair and open competition’ to their limit, and in the former case almost led to the resignation of the First Civil Service Commissioner. But I can detect no willingness by Armstrong to support appointments because they would be politically in tune with the government (as he himself sometimes was not), or a willingness to turn a blind eye to the promotion of those who might otherwise not have qualified. It was, in the words of Geoffrey Howe that: ‘. . . officials in No 10 came to regard the Prime Minister’s passion as entitled to prevail.’7 Nevertheless, by the end of 1987 the Cabinet Secretary’s world had changed forever. Both Hunt and Armstrong were thrust unwillingly into the public gaze by the activities of investigative journalists. Armstrong hardly ever appeared publicly or in print. In 1981, in turning down a request for an interview, he wrote: ‘I have made it a rule since I came to this office not to give interviews; I have stuck to the rule rigidly; and experience has confirmed me in the view that the rule is right for someone in my position.’8 But times were changing. John Cassels, writing during his short spell as Head of the Management and Personnel Office (MPO), challenged that: ‘. . . in the long sweep rising standards of education are bound to lead to more searching interest in the way government business is handled and in the sort of people who do the handling. It is an inescapable part of modern democracy. If civil servants remain entirely faceless, they lose the game.’9 Yes, replied Armstrong: ‘I accept that there are going to be some of us at the top of the Service who cannot and should not remain entirely faceless . . . But I think that the dangers must be evident to you . . . Ministers must be convinced that we are not setting out to make ourselves media personalities in our own rights . . . For myself, I am not discontented with my reputation for being cautious and enigmatic in my dealings with the press.’10 By contrast, when Sir Gus O’Donnell was appointed Cabinet Secretary in September 2005 he could point to five years as a press secretary (first to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and then to the Prime Minister). Speaking at Armstrong’s retirement dinner, Margaret Thatcher said: ‘At a time when customs and conventions have been eroded you have upheld them. When in some quarters the word duty has been derided, you have raised it to new levels of honour and service. When humanity has so often been interpreted more by what is said than by what is done you have shown thoughtfulness and daily acts of kindness which we shall forever remember.’11 This was a sentiment recalled with fondness by those who worked closely with him. In Christopher Mallaby’s words: ‘Robert was the supreme mandarin – vastly dedicated, deter-
ideology of the government of the day or its manifestos, but advocated to Ministers what he saw as the right course in the national interest and within the scope of the government’s overall attitude. He wrote with outstanding elegance, clarity and subtlety. His humanity was clear to his colleagues, in many of whom he inspired not only admiration and loyalty but also much affection.’12 He treated as an equal those subordinates he trusted.13 He was a master at papering over the cracks.14 No Prime Minister could have asked for a more devoted or skilled bodyguard who would shield them and take the intellectual bullets intended for them. Yet he left a civil service with low self-esteem, wounded by the criticisms and indifference of Ministers. In retrospect he seems an outstanding Cabinet Secretary and a strong motivator at a personal level, but less able to reach out and touch the lives of the rank and file.