Andrew Gimson

Charming wit or oily Welshman?

Andrew Gimson on Sir Hayden Phillips, the unfailingly agreeable civil servant in charge of constitutional affairs

This name is seldom, if ever, on the lips of the man in the saloon bar. But mention Sir Hayden Phillips to men of affairs, men of a certain consequence in our public life, men who are members of his club, Brooks’s, and you will find that they laugh, or smile at least, and say what an amusing fellow he is, besides being a brilliant operator. There is something about the mere thought of Sir Hayden that cheers people up. But should you ask, with a journalist’s impertinence, for some example of Sir Hayden’s wit, or some fuller idea of the man’s charm, your distinguished informant will first reassure himself that he is speaking ‘off the record’, then repeat what he has already said – ‘amusing’, ‘brilliant’, etc. – and end by giving you the telephone number of some other distinguished person who ‘could give you a much better flavour than I can’.

Sir Hayden is one of the most influential civil servants of our time. He has created two new departments, dealing with culture and with justice: he became permanent secretary of the Department of National Heritage, now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, on its creation in April 1992, and in April 1998 was promoted to the post of Permanent Secretary of the Lord Chancellor’s Department, which is in the process of headlong expansion and earlier this summer was renamed the Department of Constitutional Affairs. In years to come we may look back aghast at the sweeping extension of central control which took place in this period, and may ask how we could have allowed the Whitehall machine to exercise a rapidly growing power over parts of our national life – arts, sports, the media, the judiciary – where at one time any interference from that quarter would have been regarded as presumptuous.

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