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Britain has had 54 Prime Ministers since 1721, but only eleven Cabinet Secretaries since the Cabinet Office was created in 1916. Robin Butler, the seventh Cabinet Secretary, in common with others who held the position, had more influence on the development of British history than probably at least half of these Prime Ministers. Yet the Prime Ministers have been studied in depth, with hundreds of biographies written about them. Barely anything has been published about these eleven cabinet secretaries. Michael Jago’s book is therefore to be welcomed. It is meticulously researched and thoughtfully written, and reveals much about the subject, as well as the way in which the British civil service operates.
Butler had a conventional career for a mandarin. Head boy at Harrow in the 1950s, he went on to study at University College, Oxford, where Butler received a first in Greats alongside two rugby blues. He joined the Treasury in 1961, and within three years had become private secretary to the Financial Secretary. His first appointment to Number 10 came eleven years later, when he was appointed to the private office of Ted Heath, specifically to oversee economic affairs. After Heath fell from power in March 1974, he rapidly gained the trust of incoming Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He returned to the Treasury in 1975 to lead the team overseeing the computerisation of financial information.
In 1982, Margaret Thatcher needed a Principal Private Secretary to succeed Clive Whitmore, and a high-quality field was presented to her. Butler emerged as the victor, and for the next three years, worked ferociously hard to smooth her passage in the relatively tranquil middle years of her premiership. When Robert Armstrong retired at the end of 1987 as the Cabinet Secretary and head of the home civil service, Butler was the obvious successor. His relationship with Thatcher was not as happy, however, in this new post. He fought to maintain the traditions of civil service impartiality as Thatcher became increasingly presidential, relying heavily on the advice of just two of her staff – Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell. Butler was at his happiest as Cabinet Secretary serving John Major through his turbulent premiership from 1990-1997, very significantly adding to its stability at a time when the Prime Minister was critically short of solid and dependable support. Butler’s final year as Cabinet Secretary, working with Tony Blair from 1997-1998 was again difficult, as he struggled to maintain the conventions of cabinet government in the face of the new regime.
Butler’s public career might have ended there, with a happy and active decade as Master of University College, his old college at Oxford, also attended by his biographer. But in 2004, he was asked to chair the review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, which became known as the ‘Butler Review’. The report was critical not only of the intelligence in the build up to the Iraq War, but also the process of decision making under Blair. It did nothing to endear him to the Prime Minister of the day.
Jago does an impressive job to illuminate Butler’s life, and the history of Whitehall, in particular the three decades from 1970. One cannot but understand better how government works in practice if one reads what he has written.
Inevitably, some depth of insight is missing, in part because, as Jago often acknowledges, Butler himself is the soul of discretion, and acted always in a way which was in line with correct procedures. Personal material from letters, diaries and other contemporary first-hand accounts is often lacking and on occasions one yearns for more vivid detail and personal insight. Government papers are also absent, again as he acknowledges, for the critical years when Butler was Cabinet Secretary. Whether we would have learnt much more about Robin Butler had this material been available to Jago, is hard to say. He cites cabinet minister John Redwood, saying of Butler’s cabinet minutes ‘they conceal as much as they reveal’. So perhaps the written record would have not much fresh to add. Jago has interviewed all key players, and their personal recollections certainly add much to the story.
Butler’s importance in history may be seen as that of a facilitator. He helped clarify the minds of, and brought order to the Prime Ministers he served, and made a significant impact on certainly the first four, if not Tony Blair. He had a very strong and conventional set of principles that guided his life, which included respect for the customs of cabinet government, integrity and honesty. However, his importance is much more than just that of helping the politicians that he worked for achieve their ends: he was fierce about expressing his own point of view, seen most clearly in public in the Butler Report on Iraq. Many of his nudges and influences will remain forever secret.
Robin Butler: At the Heart of Power from Heath to Blair, by Michael Jago. 414pp, Biteback 2017
Sir Anthony Seldon is the author of The Cabinet Office 1916-2016 and is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham