chapter  1
12 Pages

To Make Ministers Appear More Competent Than They Could Possibly Be

Shortly before taking up office as head of the British Government’s Central Policy Review Staff Victor Rothschild told a friend, ‘Until this week I never realised the country was run by two men whom I’d never heard of.’1 One was Sir Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, of whom Henry Kissinger wrote: ‘he made the Cabinet ministers he served appear more competent than they could possibly be.’2 Trend himself was more prosaic: ‘Your concern is to see that issues are processed up properly and that they finally reach Cabinet – when they’ve got to go to Cabinet – in a sufficiently compact, intelligible, clear form for the Cabinet to know what it is they’ve got to decide; what are the pros and cons.3 This echoes Niccolò Machiavelli, in Sixteenth Century Florence who gave the governors of Florence ‘the information necessary to make appropriate and timely decisions’.4 This account examines how six modern Cabinet Secretaries, who held office between 1947 and 2002, lived up to the challenge implied by Kissinger’s acclaim and pulls back a curtain of secrecy surrounding their activities. It is published as the office reaches its centenary. During that time there have been just 11 incumbents. The first, Maurice Hankey, held the position for 22 years, between 1916 and 1938. He was succeeded by Edward Bridges, the son of the Poet Laureate, who carried the position through the Second World War. Neither is discussed in detail in this volume. The former because there are already two significant studies;5 the latter because the requirements under Churchill during total war were exceptional. Nor are the three office holders after 2002 considered in detail, but for different reasons – notably the difficulty of achieving historical perspective at so short a distance. Cabinet itself pre-dates the office of Cabinet Secretary. When George I came to the throne in 17146 it was a tradition that the Sovereign presided over a small selection of Privy Councillors assembled to give advice orally in his ‘cabinet.’ To protect the secrecy of that advice no unnecessary record of the discussions was made. However, King George did not speak English and ceased to attend the meetings, so that by the second half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries a record of the discussions was taken and reported confidentially to the Sovereign.7 Yet in May 1839 minute taking fell into disrepair.8 Cabinet

and no record other than a private report from the Prime Minister to the Sovereign, of which there were only two copies. Cabinet Ministers raised issues orally, sometimes without warning, giving their colleagues scant opportunity to consult officials about the implications for departmental work. This had advantages – discussion was political not administrative and members of Cabinet were unlikely to have been captured by Departmental self-interest. On the other hand, Ministers sometimes left Cabinet meetings with differing views of what they believed had been agreed.9