Captain of the First XI – Sir Robin Butler 1987–97
Robin Butler’s appointment as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service was announced on 8 July 1987. It came as no surprise to his fellow mandarins and was interpreted by Whitehall watchers in the media as potentially rejuvenating, bringing an open, and outgoing style.1 In terms of the apostolic succession he lacked only one qualification – he had never been head of a department. (A proposal by Robert Armstrong to appoint him Deputy Head of the Inland Revenue in 1984 was blocked by Margaret Thatcher who thought Butler would be better deployed in the Treasury dealing with overseas finance.)2 In September 1961, straight from Oxford, with First Class Honours in Classics (Greats), he joined HM Treasury as an Assistant Principal and was allocated to the section concerned with control of the aid budget. He was soon earmarked for the top. By 1965 he had his first promotion (to Principal aged 27) and from 1965 to 1969 was secretary to the Budget Committee. A 1972 staff report said: ‘Mr Butler should go to the top of the Service. If he does not, there is something wrong with the Service.’3 Repeatedly he was praised for his enthusiasm, intelligence, speed, resilience under pressure and charm. Occasionally, there was mild criticism, such as ‘a hint of ruthlessness’ (Peter Carey) and, ‘his drafting, which is very good but not yet of the highest elegance’ (Robert Armstrong). But Armstrong also wrote: ‘It seems unfair that nature should have endowed any one mortal so richly: with intelligence, humour, moderation, modesty, charm, vitality, physical prowess and good looks.’ Together with his contemporaries Peter Jay4 and David Walker,5 the trio were known by contemporaries as la jeunesse dorée. In common with Armstrong, Butler’s milieu was that of the ministerial office, with substantial spells in Private Office serving Heath, Wilson and Thatcher and a foundation spell in the newly formed Central Policy Review Staff under Victor Rothschild in the early 1970s. He was the project manager for the design and build of the Treasury’s Financial Information System following the public expenditure crises of the mid-1970s. Not known as a profound thinker, he did not philosophise, nor often go back to first principles. He was a doer – and a very good one.6 Few expected him to be a radical reformer, though he was known to be concerned about the state of morale in the Service he inherited. His outgoing and positive approach where: ‘He has no enemies and practically everyone in Whitehall claims him for a friend,’7 were characteristics of his public persona throughout his career. To his own Private Office, however, he could sometimes be brusque – a strong, competitive instinct requiring speed, accuracy and judgement from his staff, superior to that in other Private Offices. His career had seen little adversity. His personnel file records an unsuccessful attempt in March 1984 to be appointed Chief Executive of the Property Services Agency; and on other occasions, like the Inland Revenue opportunity and, for example, a possible tour with Lord Carver in Zimbabwe, postings had not come to fruition. The Treasury never let go of the umbilical elastic. So it was an important signal that one of his first actions in 1987 was to clear diary space for a greater involvement with the civil service outside Whitehall. Two weeks into
‘sherpa’ for the global Economic Summits.8 In the first 12 months in office he made 22 visits to establishments, 20 outside London, establishing a pattern of approachability and interest in the bulk of the civil service. He estimated that the Headship of the Home Civil Service took about 50% of his time.9 Though he came from much the same background as Robert Armstrong – Harrow and University College Oxford versus Eton and Christ Church – a crucial distinction was that Armstrong had the Headship of the Home Civil Service thrust upon him when already in the role of Cabinet Secretary. For Butler it was always part of the deal and a part for which he was well suited. A second difference was that whilst Armstrong’s pastimes were intellectual, for Butler it was relaxation through competitive sport – he was the first Cabinet Secretary to declare a supporter’s allegiance to a football league team (Crystal Palace). His relaxation came from cricket, golf, swimming and squash. (Throughout his period as Cabinet Secretary he rarely missed a Wednesday morning game of squash with Sir Michael Quinlan of the MOD and he explicitly used sport as a means of encouraging a team spirit amongst those working in the civil service.) John Major described Butler as ‘one of the most competitive men I have met.’10 This competitiveness could emerge in an unlikely manner. Friends commented that walking on holiday became a time trial; one Private Secretary recalled a particularly bad day during which Butler emerged with ‘Wall-walker’ toys, bought for his grandchildren, that were thrown competitively against the corridor walls to flip-flop downwards in a race to the floor. After a few minutes he was sufficiently restored to pick up the traces as if nothing difficult had happened that day.11 From 1987 it is impossible to disentangle the roles of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service. In 2011 when it was announced that the roles were once again to be split Butler argued that the one sustained the other, as he had done to Blair in 1997.12 Other former Cabinet Secretaries who had combined the two roles argued similarly. However, there are contrary points to be made. The load is exceptionally heavy for one person and tends to favour process over substance. Accommodating that load led Butler to give up the sherpa role and later Cabinet Secretaries to weaken their hold over intelligence matters. It can be argued that these, in turn, tended to weaken their influence on the Prime Minister in the crucial areas of government cohesion. Butler described his approach to Cabinet Secretary as ‘serving Ministers collectively in the conduct and process of Government business and to assist the co-ordination of policy.’13 By contrast the Guardian argued that he saw being Head of the Home Civil Service as more important than Cabinet Secretary and that ‘he does not see it as a part of his role to take political decisions to get Ministers out of a hole, whereas John Hunt saw it as very important to have a ‘political nose . . . ‘[there is] no coherence in decision making and when John Major does take decisions he is unpredictable.’14 To lay the blame on Butler in this way underestimates the growth of Downing Street special advisers after 1979 that inevitably meant that the ubiquitous Cabinet Secretary became a thing of the past. To expect Butler to have promoted an image
high. Especially as Major’s political secretary, Judith Chaplin, put it: ‘It is possible to understand [Major] if you recognise that every decision is taken on how it affects and promotes him.’15 David Lipsey recalls Butler as a hands-off Cabinet Secretary content to keep the show on the road and not much interested in where the road was running.16 It is one description of a politically neutral Civil Service but, as Lipsey also acknowledges, it was a highly appropriate response under Major when many of the Conservatives were trying to run the government off the road over Europe. Butler’s advice to the incoming Major to find a loyal political confidante comparable to the role played by Willie Whitelaw for Margaret Thatcher17 was as far as he felt able to go in bridging the gap where rational policy had to meet political reality. The ghost of William Armstrong still flitted between the filing cabinets lining the narrow corridor between the Cabinet Office and the Downing Street Private Secretaries’ room and much of Butler’s most sensitive advice was given in the intimacy of weekly bilateral meetings between Major and his Cabinet Secretary. Butler’s Cabinet Office was not a machine feeding a personal confidante of the Prime Minister but one that set out to provide reliable and traditional briefing in tune with a return to a more consensual style of government after Thatcher. There is widespread praise from Butler’s senior contemporaries that his steadfastness in times of trouble, his ability to open Whitehall’s most obdurate doors and his willingness to promote success through others marked him out as a procedural trouble-shooter extraordinaire. As the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Employment, Geoffrey Holland, put it when he left Whitehall to become Vice Chancellor of Exeter University: ‘You have not reached your present eminence at the expense of other people or their feelings or, indeed, their own careers. Quite the contrary. You have been kind and generous throughout. You have always been there if I have been in difficulty and I know that everyone else finds exactly the same.’ Nevertheless, there was a small minority who felt differently, claiming that his ease with junior staff was patrician and that he only really valued the opinions of the Oxbridge elite. (Holland had been at Oxford at the same time as Butler and had come second to Butler in the 1961 Civil Service exam.) Where Butler did provide a vision for the wider civil service was about its future role and structure. At the outset of his tenure The Times had argued that the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service was too rarely seen in the flesh.18 He understood the difficulty of communicating with the bulk of civil servants, most of whom would never see him in the flesh. His press interviews, regular pastoral visits, occasional television and radio appearances and at least one major public speech a year sought to meet that challenge. They set a bright tone of optimism that sought to combat fears of job insecurity, pay deterioration and the lack of public regard that many, if not most, civil servants felt. Nevertheless, his response to influential criticisms of the civil service continued to be exercised behind closed doors, invisible to those he led. When a 1992 leader in The Times doubted whether the Next Steps initiative was producing real benefit,
service for declining public standards, Butler’s response was to speak privately to the complainants. But the damage to civil service morale was done. Bridges might not have replied publicly himself but he would have engineered an authoritative public reply; asking Ministers to do so might no longer have been a possibility for Butler, but perhaps more might have been done to feed a support group of influencers who could seek to put better balance into the public debate. Despite the substantial effort by officials and individual successes in management reform it proved impossible for the politically neutral civil service to straddle the roles of policy advisor and project implementer. The former CPRS secondee, William Plowden, noted in 1994: ‘Ultimately the Cabinet Secretary is the servant of Ministers. He is the quintessential insider . . . As champion of the Civil Service he is bound to find himself, at the very least, inhibited. His Cabinet Secretary’s hat is bigger than his Head of the Home Civil Service hat and can easily hide it from view.’19 Further, despite the efforts expended on management review for individual departments, until Gus O’Donnell introduced Departmental Capability Reviews in 2005 competency analysis was conducted at the level of the individual with little systematic attention on the capabilities required of Departments collectively. What had been a breath of fresh air in the late 1980s could look a bit stale by the late 1990s. Operational experience was more highly valued than before, but the method of selecting names to recommend for Grade 2 posts and above had not advanced much. The marriage of track record in improving service delivery in an Executive Agency with success in policy formulation and handling Ministers was still difficult and with a few exceptions the Senior Appointments Selection Committee struggled to rebut perceptions that: ‘there was a charmed inner circle of those who had been in certain Departments or who had occupied certain central posts.’20 Overall, Butler probably married the requirements of the two roles as well as they could be in the political circumstances of the troubled Major Government. Yet his influence did not survive the transition to the Blair administration, where he was seen as a cross between the mandarins’ shop steward and yesterday’s man. Blair describes him as: ‘. . . professional, courteous and supportive . . . He didn’t like some of the innovations, but he did his level best to make them work . . . But he was a traditionalist . . . who did not recognise that the skill set for making the modern state work effectively is different from that needed in the mid-twentieth century.’21 Jonathan Powell was less kind: ‘. . . an old-school Cabinet Secretary who was anxious to assert control over a new and inexperienced prime minister.’22 New Labour wanted to govern in a new way; some senior officials queried whether those who would have to implement a decision were in the room often enough when the decision was taken and whether policy became synonymous with politics, accelerating a decline in the civil service ability to formulate imaginative and innovative ways of delivering Ministers’ goals.