Culture

The Cabinet Office: required reading for all students of government

Anthony Seldon and Jonathan Meakin offer a glimpse of what has really gone on at the heart of our government

BY Mark Fox   /  14 December 2016

Over the festive period, Reaction authors are writing in with their favourite books from 2016 that they feel would make perfect gifts for Christmas or ideal New Year reading.

Publisher Iain Dale has a keen eye for a good book. His current ‘day job’ as a presenter of LBC might obscure his other, and much more longstanding, work as the nation’s foremost publisher of political books – but it should not. Long after the ephemeral words of radio have evaporated into the air the collection of political books he has midwifed into print will stand as testament to a serious contribution to the study of politics, government, and with this latest work by Anthony Seldon, administration of our country.

It is no dry or arid subject The Cabinet Office 1916-2016 chronicles an exceptionally interesting period in the country’s history. It tells the story of a nation often standing alone, fighting two World Wars, the Depression of the 1930s through to the financial crash of the 2000s, of the shift from great Imperial power through its dismantling, the 43 years of European membership to the eve of withdrawal. Suez, Korea, Vietnam, strikes, economic ups and downs. Nationalisation to privatisation. The Falklands. Several coalition governments – its not a new experience in British government – to the two dominant, very different Premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

The Cabinet Office was established at 11.30 am on 9 December 1916. This is the date modern British government can be said to have begun. By 1916 the war effort was sapping Britain’s resources, if not its will, to win. The USA would not participate for over another year. 1916 had been the year of the great Battles of the Somme and Jutland. Neither had been lost. Neither quite won. On coming to power a few weeks earlier Lloyd George had determined to take a firm hand on government. So he instructed a Royal Naval officer, Maurice Hankey, to set up a central administrative organisation that would control and co-ordinate the centre of government. Hankey became Secretary to the Cabinet and the Cabinet Office was born. Under Hankey and his 10 successors as Cabinet Secretary the Cabinet Office has been performing the same function ever since.

This is a story, of course, of how government is run. How decisions are made, records kept, work co-ordinated, security information is gathered and considered, issues are dealt with – but it is much more than that. It is the story of 11 very remarkable individuals who have worked with with the 19 Prime Ministers who have served since 1916. It becomes clear that the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary is key to the success of a Prime Ministers term. Mrs Thatcher was punctilious in her respect for the Cabinet Secretary and use of the Cabinet and its committees. Mr Blair was not. The contrast between the two is drawn out clearly and the judgement on their relative effectiveness as Prime Minister is also stark.

It is difficult to think of any Cabinet Secretary relishing the limelight that such a book brings, given their importance to government and to every persons every day life however such a volume is long overdue. Anthony Seldon, with Jonathan Meakin, have written a book that will certainly be required reading for all students of government. It should be required reading for every person who wants to be in government. To a wider readership this book is a great read, because it gives us the best glimpse yet of what has really gone on at the heart of our government over the last 100 years.

The Cabinet Office 1916-2016. Anthony Seldon & Jonathan Meakin, Biteback Publishing, 2016.

Purchase the book here.

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