Ferdinand Mount

Secrets of the secretaries

Is the main purpose of the cabinet secretary to frustrate the PM? Two new books uncover the hole in the middle of Whitehall

The minister’s private secretary wrote to another cabinet minister about the previous day’s cabinet meeting:

They cannot agree about what occurred. There must have been some decision, as Bright’s resignation shows. My chief has told me to ask you what the devil was decided, for he be damned if he knows. Will you ask Mr G. [Gladstone] in more conventional and less pungent terms?

That was in 1882. Twenty years later, the fog still reigned. Sir Robert Morant, the driving force behind Balfour’s 1902 Education Act, wrote:

Impossible to find out after a cabinet meeting what has actually been the decision. Salisbury does not seem to know or care, and the various ministers who do care give me contradictory versions.

As late as 1915, when the horrors of the Great War were approaching their worst, an exasperated Curzon (used to the well-oiled bureaucracy of Calcutta) complained:

There was no agenda, no order of business… no record whatever was kept of our proceedings… The cabinet often had the very haziest notion as to what its decisions were.

Looking back later, he declared that the system had ‘irretrievably broken down’.

Enter Lloyd George and with him the brisk, implacable figure of Lt-Col Maurice Hankey, late of the Royal Marines. It was Hankey who in 1916 created the cabinet office, based on his experience as secretary of the committee of imperial defence. These two centenary histories celebrate ‘the birth of modern government’, to quote the subtitle of the indefatigable Anthony Seldon, former Master of Wellington and author of numerous biographies of prime ministers. Or do they? Ian Beesley, himself an old cabinet office hand, tells us at the outset of his massive official history of six cabinet secretaries (Seldon covers all 11 in half the space), that the story shows how ‘the cabinet office has matured into a crucial driver of government policy’.

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