The Craftsman – Sir Norman Brook 1947–62
Norman Brook was the third person to occupy the office of Cabinet Secretary, after Maurice Hankey (1916-1938) and Edward Bridges (1938-1947). During World War II he was deputy to Bridges after 1942, except for a spell of 18 months from November 1943 when he was made the Permanent Secretary of the new Ministry of Reconstruction. He returned to the Cabinet Office in 1945 as joint Cabinet Secretary with Bridges and succeeded him in 1947 on Bridges’ appointment as Permanent Secretary of the Treasury. A grammar school boy who had won a scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, he had been ranked second in the 1925 Civil Service Administrative Class examinations, had been assigned to the Home Office and had risen slowly, as was normal between the
for civil emergencies, the ‘War Book’ and defence regulations.1 At the time of his application to the civil service (aged 23) his academic referee, J Wells of Wadham College, Oxford, and Vice Chancellor of the University, wrote: ‘Mr Norman Craven Brook was elected to our Senior Scholarship at the end of 1920 and is just completing his fourth year of residence. He obtained an exceedingly good First Class in Classical Moderations, and I have every reason to believe that he will obtain a First Class also in his Final School (Litterae Humaniores).2 I have seen a certain amount of his work and this confirms the report of his tutors that he is an exceptionally able man. I cannot speak too highly of him in every respect. He has been a great force in the College and his influence has always been on the side of all that was best. He rowed in the College Eight and almost obtained his Trials cap from the University; he plays in our rugby team; and he is exceedingly musical having a very fine voice. With all these good gifts he is one of the most modest of men, most pleasant to work with and a man who would be universally liked. I cannot too strongly commend him for an administrative post, for he has ability, character and tact.’3 Sixty years later, Jock Coville4 summed up the challenge of assessing Brook’s contribution to public life as: ‘There are people who were widely known in their own generation, who sparkled when they talked, who were concerned with the important events of their day but whose names, because they left nothing behind in writing, are destined to be mere footnotes in the memoirs and histories of their times. Brendan Bracken was one, Lady Desborough another, Lord Normanbrook a third.’5 Assiduous trawling through over 700 files in The National Archives
day and demonstrates a political neutrality in officials that still characterises the British way. There are also numerous comments (usually tributes) to him in the writing of others; but no diaries or memoirs by Brook himself, which is hardly surprising given his defence of the confidentiality of the relationship between Ministers and officials and his total opposition to officials keeping diaries about their working life. The most frequent comments from those who worked with Brook refer to his calmness when others were at risk of losing their heads and his delight and skill in finding the next procedural step that would keep things moving when it looked as if they had entered a cul-de-sac. A plea by Harold Macmillan’s Principal Private Secretary, Freddie Bishop, in July 1961 for all submissions to the Prime Minister to have a procedural recommendation points to the importance of this hidden skill. Brook excelled in it, both where he was closely involved (such as over the future of the independent nuclear deterrent) and where he left the briefing largely to others (such as the approach to European integration). His calming influence is evident in matters large (e.g., the calls for restrictions on personal freedom during the Korean War) or small (e.g. when Macmillan scribbled, ‘Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher?’).6 The overwhelming impression is of a man with strict personal control and an ever ‘open door’ for Ministers or senior officials to confide and seek solace. His own confidences, such as they are, are to be found in authors that he would never have thought would reveal them – notably the memoirs of George Mallaby (for some years Brook’s deputy) and the diaries of Winston Churchill’s personal physician, Lord Moran. Mallaby describes Brook as a master of order and precision who felt that, even when he was personally unsympathetic to the policies, ‘he must exercise [his] power in such a way as to bring about the most orderly and rapid transaction of Government business.’7 ‘From Brook I have learned the strength and power of a truly calm, objective and unhurried judgement.’8 He also wrote, ‘When Winston was excited about something Norman Brook was always there as a steadying influence, and Winston came to rely on him enormously . . . he was quite sure he could get Norman Brook’s wise judgement on any issue entirely untinged by personal considerations.’9 Moran adds to this that ‘[Brook] has an honest mind, and is on the whole more approachable than Bridges: it is easy to understand how the whole Cabinet trust him and rely on his judgement.’10 At the time of Macmillan’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’ a former Secretary of State for Scotland wrote: ‘You display colossal patience through all these crises: I can’t think how you control yourself!’11 The nearest we can get to Brook’s own ideal is, perhaps, an assessment he made of David Maxwell-Fyfe (Home Secretary 1951-54, and later Lord Chancellor): ‘David was very conscientious. What I like about him is that if you have a problem he will at once offer to help and take any amount of trouble to find a solution. He has good judgement, and when his report is ready every aspect is considered. Nothing is left out. It is pretty dull stuff, but when David has done the Cabinet doesn’t want to discuss it further, but is ready to pass on to the next item on the agenda.’12 During the research for this book another ‘grammar school’ Permanent Sec-
opinion that Brook’s fabled control was a defence mechanism against the innate ‘public school’ snobbery of the then ruling mandarins. Brook could simply not afford to relax his guard. It was Maurice Bowra at Wadham College, Oxford, who said of him ‘Very quick, Brook. Learned the tricks, learned the tricks. Came up with a front pocket stuffed full of pens. Soon disappeared inside. Learned the tricks.’13 Harold Macmillan also could be snobbish, commenting to Moran that Brook ‘had no background.’14 However, Brook induced fear in other civil servants. To most except the closest colleagues (and to some of them too) he appeared cold, conventional and uninterested in his fellow men and women – whereas from his successor, Burke Trend, onwards there are notable examples of successful women at the top of the Cabinet Office whereas there appears to be none during Brook’s tenure. The wife of a later Cabinet Secretary kept a cutting from The Daily Mail from 28 November 1961 for over 45 years before passing it on to the author. It began. ‘There is a golden rule for every ambitious Civil Servant: “Don’t cross Norman Brook.” Some people say it is a golden rule for every ambitious politician too.’ Harold Kent, the former Treasury Solicitor says, ‘Brook had a powerful mind, strength of character, which included an ability to lose his temper on rare occasions . . .’15 He was, also according to Kent, ‘The cool, professional, executive type – tall and physically impressive and dressed well in a quiet way – handwriting was neat and firm – sense of humour quiet and restrained – jealous of his time and you could only see him by appointment, for which you had to make a good case – he generally managed to get home for dinner. Most civil servants who knew them both well seemed fonder of Bridges. It was otherwise with Ministers: ‘Bridges had an intellectual fastidiousness and moral rectitude which could make him forbidding . . . Brook was personally more ambitious, and he enjoyed the political game, and Ministers were more at home with him’.16 Whilst Brook delighted in the exercise of power he was careful to keep key officials on side, notably Sir Patrick Dean at the Foreign Office, Sir Roger Makins at the Treasury and Sir Frank Newsam at the Home Office. His relationship with Bridges was more complex, not the least over Suez where Eden excluded Bridges from those allowed to see the invasion papers.17 The official boundary between the Head of the Treasury, then the more senior of the two posts, and the Cabinet Secretary was sometimes unclear; thus, for example, whilst Brook conducted the first quick investigation into the Commander Crabb fiasco it was Bridges who conducted the full inquiry. In public they praised each other: Brook said, ‘Hankey created the machinery . . . but it was Bridges who breathed life into it and gave it flexibility and capacity for growth.’18 In an undated note Bridges wrote to Brook, ‘But I’m sure that, since there has been a Cab[inet] Office, nobody in it has ever done as good job as you have done on Palestine. And nobody has ever given a more perfect demonstration . . . of how much “the official” can do for Ministers.’19 But the files show a certain formality in their dealings that goes wider than was required by the conventions of the time and does not show the free flow of ideas that characterised, for example,
Throughout his tenure ‘money was the root of all evil’ – Britain had been left effectively bankrupt after the war and the struggle both to return its economy to a peacetime footing and to pay for the country’s fading status as a world power and the social reforms presaged by the Beveridge Report dominated. The Official Historian of the post-war financial settlement, L S Pressnell, describes four massive external economic problems: (1) the end of US Mutual Aid/Lend-Lease; (2) financial liabilities of £3,355 million (equivalent to two and a half years of exports at the 1938 volume) with lower gold and dollar reserves (a ratio of reserves to debt of 1:7 compared to 1¼:1 in 1939); (3) the challenge of financing the inevitable balance of payments deficit during the transition to peace and, in particular, in the light of a severe dollar shortage; (4) Article VII of the 1942 Lend-Lease agreement that had committed Britain to less restrictive world trading arrangements than hitherto.20 Furthermore, the fear of Russia and a Communist threat was ever present in Ministerial minds and those of their senior officials. Some of the key policies of the Attlee years, including much of the socialisation programme, were personally unwelcome to Brook – he was no advocate of the big state; in 1954 he referred to ‘six years of Socialist rule during which we certainly had too much “government” ’21 – yet he drove the central machinery effectively to deliver Ministerial agreements, setting the tone for the higher civil service into the twentyfirst century. (Delivery by the outer mass of the civil service or other public sector workers was evidently not his worry – even when he became Head of the Home Civil Service.) However, he was not a policy innovator and unlike, say, Frank Newsam at the Home Office, would have been uncomfortable leading a policy department. His defence of civil liberties when they came under threat during the Korean War was both brave and principled. His handling of Aneurin Bevan’s resignation was a beacon of calmness in a sea of emotion. His guidance as government moved to a peacetime footing was an unsung success; but he failed to compensate for Attlee’s lack of interest and knowledge of economics and underestimated the weakness of the economy. He was not close to Attlee but few were. Mallaby observed that Attlee was ‘like a schoolmaster who kept order very well but did not teach you very much’ – his dealings with officials were equally impersonal.22 There is no doubt that Brook found Churchill a more sympathetic character and was more on a wavelength with him, politically and personally. It was during Churchill’s 1952 administration that the Conservative and Labour parties started to move apart, with Labour’s National Executive document Challenge to Britain advocating greater state control of industry, health services and education, including the abolition of independent schools.’ Meanwhile, the Conservative journal The Spectator judged that ‘If there is one thing we have learnt . . . it is that the argument over who shall own certain large industries is to a great extent irrelevant to the efficiency of those industries’; and The Tablet offered the view that ‘The underlying idea that runs through the new Labour Party Programme . . . is not a challenge but a threat to bring back the claustrophobia of a closely regulated national-Socialist economy.’23 Moreover, Churchill’s working style suited that of Brook. He preferred paper.