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100 years of Cabinet secretaries: six in conversation

The IfG gathered all six living Cabinet Secretaries to talk about their time in office

For the first time, the IfG gathered all six living Cabinet Secretaries to talk about their time in office. Dr Catherine Haddon tells us what this one-of-a-kind reunion revealed

There have been 11 Cabinet secretaries, serving 22 different Prime Ministers, since 1916. The role of Cabinet Secretary, as the senior civil servant in government, has expanded enormously over time. And with that, so have the challenges.

Lord Butler (who served in the role from 1988–98) pointed out that the role varied greatly by Prime Minister – under Blair, Downing Street was very different than under Major, let alone Thatcher. Prime Minsters use Cabinet machinery in different ways and all had different priorities for government to deliver. The task of getting the Civil Service to achieve these would, in the end, often fall to the Cabinet Secretary.

Each of the six had their own stories to share. What follows is just a selection of the highlights.

Dealing with conflict

Lord Wilson (1998–2002) pointed out how much of his period was spent dealing with military action and other crises – Kosovo, Operation Desert Fox, Sierra Leone, fuel, floods and foot and mouth – ‘stuff’ just took over. But it was his account of 9/11 that was his most memorable, and showed the crucial role the Cabinet Office plays in times of crisis.

Wilson described getting stuck in traffic, being on the phone to Sir Jeremy Heywood (then Principal Private Secretary to Tony Blair). By the time he got to No.10, many of the key figures needed, including the Prime Minister, were still making their way back. Wilson had to take a large number of decisions rapidly – whether to evacuate No.10 (they didn’t), whether to close London Airport (they did), and warning key installations and Buckingham Palace.

He described going into COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room) and being moved by how packed the room was – full of people who had made their way over knowing they might be needed. At first it was not clear who else could chair it, so he did. But he was conscious of the need for political decision makers in the room. When Gordon Brown arrived, Wilson offered to cede control to him only to be told to carry on; Brown didn’t want to disrupt the flow.

By the time Blair arrived, Wilson wanted to ensure the PM knew every action that had been taken.  Blair’s response was "you have my permission for all of that". Blair wanted to move instantly to the big picture: the need to speak to Bush; where was he, how he was going to react.

When a crisis isn’t a crisis

Lord O’Donnell (2005–11) said that too often people would come to him with crises that didn’t warrant that description – disputes between ministers, leaks, even dealing with an unclear election result.

These, he said, didn’t compare to events where people’s lives were being lost. O’Donnell said the best advice he was given was by his predecessor Lord Turnbull (2002–05), that ‘your job is to be a shock absorber, not an amplifier'.

O’Donnell described the different phases his tenure went through and how they affected what his time was spent on: the focus on modernisation under Blair, the financial crisis and beginning of cuts under Brown.

After 2010, matters changed greatly because of the coalition and the amount of time he spent making sure the cabinet machinery supported what was a very different type of government. O’Donnell described how extraordinary it felt to have the first Cabinet of the coalition, when two tribes came and sat together not by party, but in the different ministries they now held.   

Faster pace

For Sir Jeremy Heywood (2012 to present), the biggest difference  between today and Lord Armstrong’s tenure (1979–1987) was the pace: typists used to take several days for a copy, papers would likewise we amended over several days, even weeks and months.

Now Heywood might find that within half an hour 15 people would already have commented on an email he sent out. For O’Donnell that increased pace and the focus of media also meant that no Cabinet Secretary could expect to be behind the scenes.

They were public figures; it came with the job. Heywood and O’Donnell both discussed the Civil Service needed to be given more space to do preparatory work. For O’Donnell, preparation for the different outcomes of a referendum should be treated the same as for an election. The incumbent government might not like the Civil Service thinking about alternative outcomes, but all-parties should agree in advance that it is a necessary role.  

Future Cabinet Secretaries

As well as changes, the event brought out how much continuity there has been in the last 40 years, not least in the background and experience of the men (as they have all been men) who have taken on this role. But it left us with the question of what might the next forty, fifty or a hundred years of evolution look like?  Will future cabinet secretaries come from the more diverse civil service all said they had worked to improve?

For Sir Jeremy Heywood that is a legacy that he would like to create: “It’s very frustrating that we haven’t had a female Cabinet Secretary yet or female Head of the Civil Service. It will be one of my key objectives in life, that when I come to be replaced there will be a short-list which has at least one – hopefully a balance of applicants”.

You can watch the full video and key video clips on our event page.

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