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Men of Secrets

John Rentoul

armstrong 300x198 Men of SecretsAll living cabinet secretaries, including the present one, Sir Jeremy Heywood, have been interviewed for the History section of the 10 Downing Street website, a joint project of No 10 and the Mile End Group.

Highlights videos of two interviews, with Robert Armstrong and Robin Butler, have gone up on the Downing Street website, and the full videos and transcripts have just been released on a Cabinet Secretaries website maintained by the Mile End Group, the contemporary history centre at Queen Mary, University of London.

In his interview with Peter Hennessy, Lord Armstrong (pictured) says, “There are secrets which I shall take to the grave.”

“Give us a clue,” says Lord Hennessy.

“No I won’t give you any clues. But, are you suggesting that that is a burden? I don’t think I did find it a burden really. It was part of the job.”

Some of the interview is about the trivial changes Lord Armstrong made as chief paper-shuffler, including changing the headed writing paper. “I got rid of that gothic …” And, as principal private secretary to Edward Heath, he introduced a special red box that Harold Wilson called “Old Stripey”:

LA: Most of the Prime Minister’s boxes are bright red and every evening a box of papers is put together and when I came into Number 10 as Principal Private Secretary if you had something which was top secret and codeword perhaps, not to be seen by the duty clerks and people like that, you had to put it in two envelopes, sealed so that the Prime Minister had to open it himself or herself when she got the papers and with the papers you had to put in two more envelopes so that when he or she had read it he could put them back in the envelopes and seal them up and no Prime Minister that I ever worked for much enjoyed doing that, he thought it was a waste of time, sometimes they didn’t do it. And so I thought that it would be better to have a more convenient arrangement would be to have a separate box where you put the very top secret stuff with, for which the keys would be in the hands only of the Prime Minister and the Principal Private Secretary. We designed a box or I designed a box which was an ordinary red box with a blue stripe across, across the top of it and I introduced this when Heath was Prime Minister and it worked very well and it worked equally well with Harold Wilson who christened it ‘Old Stripey’. And of course because it always had all this sensitive stuff it was always the box they looked at first, so that if you if there was something you wanted to be absolutely sure the Prime Minister would read overnight you would put it in ‘Old Stripey’.

LH: Even if it wasn’t intelligence?

LA: Even if it wasn’t quite so secret as some of the rest of the stuff.

He was Cabinet Secretary 1979-87, and he doesn’t think much of what came later, particularly the proliferation of “units” attached to No 10 under Tony Blair:

LA: The Blair experiment doesn’t, doesn’t survive well, does it?

LH: You think, you think it ended in tears Robert, do you?

LA: I think it started in tears and I think it went on in tears. I mean he’s a very remarkable man but he, he really had no sense of the problems of managing a government I don’t think and certainly little … with little, only a very small sense of history and what that might have taught him.

His account of Michael Heseltine’s resignation in 1986 is not new, but is wonderfully dry:

LA: The Cabinet minutes, the official ones, are covered by a list and the list for this particular meeting says, with the list of ministers says, ‘Rt Hon Michael Heseltine MP, Secretary of State for Defence brackets items one and two. Rt Hon George Younger MP, brackets Secretary of State for Scotland items one and two, Secretary of State for Defence items three to five.’ I think it’s unique.

Finally, he doesn’t approve of the way his successors have been sucked in to politics:

LH: If you had one piece of advice for a future Cabinet Secretary, what would it be?

LA: I think it would be that you are the point where the administrative machine and the political machine come together and you’re the apex of the administrative machine and you should be constantly on your guard against being drawn into doing things which ought to be done at the political level and not the administrative level and I think that some of the, some of the problems that have arisen, possibly Spycatcher – I don’t actually think Spycatcher – but, for example, the Jonathan Aitken business with Robin Butler. I don’t think the Cabinet Secretary should have been drawn into that.

LH: To have to interview a minister about the veracity of his statements.

LA: Yes … It was done as a public thing and I twitch rather when the Cabinet Secretary is brought into it as a, as an arbiter as he was then and there have been other cases since when reference has been made to him in that way. And he’s not, he’s an adviser and in the end on the political things the arbiter has to be the Prime Minister, and so I think that that’s something that any holder of the office has to be extremely careful to avoid.

I’ll post about Lord Butler, Cabinet Secretary 1988-98, shortly. Further interviews with former cabinet secretaries will be published, on the Downing Street and Mile End Group websites, over the next few weeks.

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