On 9 December 1916, Maurice Hankey took the first set of modern minutes at the War Cabinet. It was a move to bring greater clarity to the recording of government decisions and to improve their implementation. In the 100 years since then he has had just ten successors as Cabinet Secretary. The Cabinet Office itself has developed from a secretariat into a department in its own right, shaped and changed by the evolving role of the Cabinet Secretary.
How did the Cabinet Office become the powerhouse it is today? Organising Cabinet meetings and taking the record of the discussions – how boring is that? Well, it's not quite that simple.
There is no job description in the conventional sense. The task changes in response to how the Prime Minister of the day wishes to run things.
For a start, events intrude. Often the Prime Minister needs wriggle room and the Cabinet Secretary can provide it. Two years after replacing Anthony Eden following the Suez debacle in 1956, Harold Macmillan asked Norman Brook to lead a study on the future world role of the UK. Despite involving Whitehall’s best brains, in the eyes of ministers the report was too pessimistic for discussion at Cabinet. It joined the mountain of reports with fine analysis and unimplemented recommendations. Yet Macmillan lost no face.
Or take 1973, when the price of oil quadrupled, threatening the economic stability of the West. Prime Minister Edward Heath dispatched John Hunt as his personal representative to “smoke out American intentions”. As summit meetings became more frequent, so the role of the personal representative grew.
Consider 1976, when Jim Callaghan sent Hunt on a secret mission to Germany. His task was to seek support for sterling. Britain was in another economic crisis. It sought a massive loan from the International Monetary Fund. This required a severe austerity package. At the key Cabinet discussion Hunt slipped a note to the Prime Minister: “The Cabinet don’t really know how hard you and the Chancellor have been fighting.” He continued with real-time advice on how to handle the crucial but difficult discussion and was pivotal in securing agreement.
In 1982 the then Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, established the Mandarin Group that met daily to prepare the ground for ministers’ politico-military decisions on the conduct of the Falklands campaign.
In 1983 Robert Armstrong and David Goodall began discussions with Dermot Nally and other officials of the Irish Government on the future of Northern Ireland. Margaret Thatcher allowed the work to continue because she knew that she could put an end to it at any time. Their work led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, an important step in the peace process.
More recently, Richard Wilson’s decisive actions to close London City Airport and establish an immediate no-fly zone over London after the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, freed Tony Blair to focus on the strategic issues.
And the expectations of the public have also changed. When television news channels started, the pressure on a prime minister to respond to a vast array of issues meant that the Cabinet Office had to give more of a lead to other departments. What had started as an issue of scheduling and recording became one of getting ahead of the curve. Which is close to where we came in – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I am often asked who was the greatest Cabinet Secretary. I usually say – tongue in cheek – the 12th, the fictitious Sir Humphrey Appleby of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’: never bettered in argument, always there with a clever ruse. He is to the Civil Service what James Bond is to MI6.
Ian Beesley has written the independently published official history of Cabinet Secretaries in the post-war period up to 2002.