Book review: The Cabinet Office, 1916–2016

Written by Keith Simpson on 25 January 2017 in Culture

Anotny Seldon argues that prime ministers have been most effective when they have worked with the Cabinet Office.

Last year saw, what was effectively, the centenary of the establishment of the Cabinet office under Maurice Hankey.  The author has written and edited more than forty books on British politics and in this case has had the admirable support of Jonathan Meakin.

The great advantage of this study is that it is informative, readable and brings the story right up to date.  It is more likely to be read than the Official History of the Cabinet Secretaries which has just been published, and only covers the period from 1947-2002 and at a horrendous cost.  But Seldon is very close to the British Whitehall establishment and the foreword is written by Jeremy Heywood, the current Cabinet Secretary, who concludes that the author “has created in this volume a  manual, a set text on being the Cabinet Secretary”.

Seldon and his researchers have used the Cabinet Office Papers in The National Archives, and interviewed where possible politicians and officials.  But this is more than a history of the Cabinet Office, but looks at what we now call the development of the Whitehall machine.  It is fascinating to consider the fact that the Cabinet Secretariat owed its existence to the formation of the Lloyd George government in December 1916 and to first secretary, the hardworking and feline Maurice Hankey, who held the post down until just before the Second World War.

It is fair to say that without the two World wars and the dominant personalities of Lloyd George and Churchill the Cabinet Secretariat would never had flourished.  But nothing was ordained, and in the aftermath of the collapse of the Lloyd Georges’ Coalition in 1922 the Cabinet Secretariat came close to being terminated.

Seldon suggests that unlike the other great Whitehall departments – the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Home Office – the Cabinet Office’s role is not that well-known.

Since 1916 the Office has been run by just eleven Cabinet Secretaries, all men, who have served nineteen Prime Ministers.  Seldon argues that the country has benefited over the past one hundred years from a substantially impartial, non-partisan and highly skilled senior Home Civil Service.  An aim of this book is to elevate public perception of the role of the Cabinet Office, and to widen understanding of the pivotal contribution it has made to facilitating and supporting governments of the day since 1916.

In many respects the Cabinet Office has been the glue which has bound together the enlarged Whitehall estate with the Cabinet Secretary serving both the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

Seldon argues that Prime Ministers have been most effective when they have worked with the Cabinet Office and with the Cabinet Secretary in particular, and within the conventions of Cabinet government, including collective responsibility, rather than trying to operate their own presidential top – down systems.  Both Lloyd Gorge and Churchill did just that as did two of the most successful, peacetime equivalents, Attlee and Thatcher.  And Cabinet Secretaries and the office have been a steadying and guiding hand with governments under pressure, such as Churchill’s last, Wilson’s second and Major and then Cameron’s Coalition government.

The history of the Cabinet Office relies heavily on the personalities and attributes of the eleven Cabinet Secretaries.  Hankey moulded it and ensured its survival; Bridges (1938-46) created the modern Cabinet Office and Committee system; Brook (1947-62) adapted and refined the systems;  Trend (1963-73) maintained high standards against tremendous political, economic and social change; Hunt (1973-79) continued the tradition; Armstrong (1979-870 persuaded Thatcher to acknowledge Cabinet government and worked hard for an accommodation over Northern Ireland; Butler (1988-98) dealt with a declining Thatcher, beleagued Major and  inducted   Blair.  Wilson (1998-2002) fought a gallant rear guard against Blairite politicisation which Turnbull (2002-05) continued.,  O’Donnell (2005-11) oversaw the transition from Blair to Brown and the first peacetime coalition since the 1930s and finally Heywood (2012 to the present) motivated the coalition and oversaw two referendums.

But the role of the Cabinet Secretary is one of ambiguity, and depends upon personal relations, and the opportunity of offer policy advice which invariably contains their own personal views.  A very pratical ambivalence has been the on/off combination of the position of Cabinet Secretary with the leadership of the Home Civil Service.

Throughout its one hundred year history the Cabinet Office has, at times, had to fight for its survival – as much from the predatory activities of senior departmental civil servants as from ministers.  Seldon argues that proximity is power and the Cabinet Secretary is physically close to the Prime Minister.  They have come from a narrow social brand – all male, all white, all from England, all middle class. All but Turnbull and O’Donnell attended British public schools, and all but two, Hankey and O’Donnell, went to Oxbridge – perhaps here we will see a future change, the first female Cabinet Secretary?




About the author

Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland.

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