22 July 2011

Cabinet Minutes as "a source of satirical magnificence". Dr Catherine Haddon blogs about Cabinet minute-taking through the years.

In 1986, at the height of the Westland Affair, Michael Heseltine resigned as Secretary of State, walking straight out of the Cabinet to brief the press. The remaining members of the Cabinet were not sure if he was actually resigning or just leaving the room. After this slight issue was resolved, Cabinet was paused while a new Secretary of State for Defence was appointed. This event formed part of one of the most troubling crises of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, a moment when she herself contemplated resigning. The height of the drama, according to the Cabinet Secretary who recorded it, will apparently now and forever more be officially recorded as

‘Those Present:

The Rt. Hon. Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for Defence, Items 1 and 2

The Rt. Hon. George Younger, Secretary of State for Scotland, Items 1 and 2, Secretary of State for Defence, Items 3, 4 and 5’

Here is the style and beauty of the Cabinet Minute. A ‘tool of administration’ first and foremost, according to the current Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, and an important historical source about government decision-making over the course of the last century. But they are also, just occasionally, a source of satirical magnificence.

For historians, when the minutes cover a subject of major import or particularly politically contentious, and knowing that the people sitting around the famous table were no shrinking violets, it is always with a wry smile that you read the minuted account that ‘there followed a discussion’. Now, for the first time, we are able to see into the style guide that has produced such gems of understatement.  Sir Gus O’Donnell has produced the ‘Guide to Minute Taking’ that has been used and updated by every Cabinet Secretary since the 1950s.

O’Donnell provided this nugget at a Mile End Group seminar at Queen Mary College alongside one of his predecessors, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, Cabinet Secretary under Margaret Thatcher. It was Armstrong who revealed that Thatcher would have preferred an even terser style, perhaps even recording the conclusion at the beginning to better reflect her own style of chairmanship.

The practice of taking formal minutes of the meeting of the Cabinet was first introduced in 1916 by Maurice Hankey, in the midst of the First World War, as part of an aim to address major problems of Government decision-making. Since then the thousands of minutes produced under successive governments provide a near continuous account of British government history over the century. There have always been missing bits – including confidential annexes. And they fail to convey anything like the reality of the atmosphere, personalities, or the detailed debate. Historians build up the picture from wider sources; memoirs, diaries and other first-hand accounts, letters between officials, and deeper knowledge of the subjects discussed, and an understanding of how government works.

Recreating the past from such sources is difficult, but it is the nature of the beast. And the off-cited criticism of the Blair Government, as having made more decisions through unrecorded bilateral meetings, is misleading in this respect. Historians have always known that unrecorded discussions in corridors could have proved to be the crucial moment. Many of those who participate speak of the dullness of the weekly meetings. Indeed, even ministers themselves are unlikely to have time to read them assiduously. The criticism of more modern Cabinets is that they do not often detail a decision, but more likely just record that ‘the Cabinet took note’.

Yet the minutes are still the definitive record of what was discussed, and when, at the top of government. And, as the Heseltine case shows, Cabinet can sometimes be the venue for the highest drama in government. Hence for historians, when it comes to official records across the government archive, getting beneath the style is part of the thrill of the chase.

We now have extra methods to achieve this. The Cabinet Secretary notebooks – the handwritten accounts – have now been placed in the National Archives. These give a point of reflection, but again are still only partial. The Cabinet Secretary is often busy helping the PM to run the meeting (keeping an eye on time, or on who is waiting to speak, or who the PM is trying to ignore). The minutes are recorded by hand, and not verbatim. By and large for the last 20 years they have been taken down by deputies, with the Cabinet Secretary himself keeping a note and being the one to actually collate and sign off the final version.

But the style guide is equally fascinating. It tells us that ‘it is often convenient to weld together into a single paragraph a number of points made by various speakers’. A frustration if you want to know who actually said what, how, and using what evidence – something they used to convey under Hankey and Sir Edward Bridges. But, apparently, speakers in Cabinet can sometimes end up merely repeating what others have said, or come rambling to the point (which was not the point they started with). As a tool of administration, it is more important for the recorders to have an account of the themes, and any final action points.

These days, the nature of the minutes have somewhat changed again thanks to the challenges of technology. On at least one occasion they have had to incorporate video, but they still circulate the paper copies of the final minutes.

The minutes are also a reminder of the frailness of memory. They are the accepted version for those there and those not of what actually happened. The conflicting accounts in the 1960s diaries of Cabinet ministers Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle and Tony Benn are a reminder of the ability of ministers to misremember what happened.  Thus it is that this bland, yet somehow coded style, was satirised by Yes Minister, apparently more accurately attributable to one former Cabinet Secretary as ‘You don’t write down what they said, you write down what they would have said, if they were thinking’.


And so, as the great ones go off for their dinner,
The secretary stays, getting thinner and thinner,
Scratching his head to record and report,
What he thinks that they think they ought to have thought.

As a nearly new civil servant around 1975, and lumbered for the first time with taking notes of a meeting, I was given a copy of the notes for cabinet secretaries. I was told it dated from the 1960s. I still have it. It's typewritten on now-yellowing foolscap paper. Over the years I've copied it to many colleagues and staff but in recent years I noticed an increasing tendency for them to look at it like some sort of ancient fossilised relic when I handed it over. So before I left the civil service in 2006 I decided I must try to get hold of the current version. A few phone calls to the Cabinet Office tracked down a helpful person who agreed to send me one. I can still remember my astonishment as I started to read it and discovered it was word-for-word virtually unchanged.

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