Speaking truth to Tony Blair, pioneering privatisation, and the importance of gossip: lunch with Lord Wilson

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 16 May 2017 in Interview
Interview

The former cabinet secretary shares his Whitehall reflections with Suzannah Brecknell

Who? Richard Wilson joined the civil service in 1966 as an assistant principal in the Board of Trade, having impressed the fast stream selection board with his enthusiasm. “The more he is pressed the more cheerful he becomes,” wrote the interviewers. He rose to become cabinet secretary under Tony Blair from 1998-2002, having before that served as permanent secretary of the Home Office and environment department. He also led the Cabinet Office Domestic Secretariat under Margaret Thatcher.

The venue: Gillray’s Steakhouse & Bar: An Art Deco inspired venue in London’s County Hall hotel, serving classic dishes with inventive accompaniments and a light touch

The menu

Starter:  A complimentary cheese-filled Yorkshire pudding
Main: Stone bass with baby fennel, artichokes, pickled samphire and onion oil; slow-cooked hen egg, goat’s cheese, courgette flowers and truffle oil
We drank: Sparkling water; coffee

We discussed

Coping in hard jobs

With each job I thought: “I can’t do this.” And then I did it, and they said: “Well done, and now we’ve got another job for you that’s even harder.” You cope by making friends with your colleagues; you depend on other people. You brief yourself pretty intensively, and try to get to the point where you actually understand what you’re talking about. Go out of the office, meet people, see things, and ask the questions that come into your mind until you begin to have some idea of what you’re dealing with, because you’re no use to anyone unless you know what you’re talking about. 

When I was put in charge of privatising a nationalised industry called Britoil I knew nothing about privatisation – none of us did in the early stages. One day I had a meeting with the merchant bankers Warburg in the afternoon so I went into the bookshop on Horseferry Road and looked up merchant bankers under “M” in a teach yourself banking book to see what merchant bankers did. I later discovered that they just bluff.

Gossip

I do miss the people I worked with; I miss the gossip. Gossip is such an important tool of management. I lecture on leadership and I tell everybody, if they want to be good leaders they must tune in to the gossip. You don’t understand the world of your organisation unless you know the gossip. And the more senior you become the more you get cut off. 

Tricks to manage a tense meeting

I love chairing meetings where there’s a problem to be solved. One of the ways you do it is by making it more fun and by jokes. I’m also a great believer in having a table that’s a bit too small and where people have to shove their papers up and get together. People will work better round a table which is slightly crowded. There’s a great room – Conference Room A – in the Cabinet Office. It’s got George III’s throne in it, the original cabinet table in the middle, and all these really expensive chairs from the late 18th/early 19th century which are all about two feet apart. If you have people at a meeting like that they come with their departmental brief and they think they have to perform in accordance with their brief and their role. You don’t want that. So you turn to the person who is being difficult and sticking to their brief and ask: “Now look, you’ve heard [the other department’s] problem. Suppose you were in their department, what’s the answer to their problem?” They look puzzled and say they don’t have to answer it. You say: “Well, we’re all working for the government so let’s try and get the answer. I promise you I’ll tell your department you argued your corner, I’ll say you put up a good fight.”

Thatcher in meetings

The image that she knew exactly what she thought and even before people had got into the room and would say: “Well, I think this is a terrible paper” is true to some extent. But sometimes she had no idea what the right answer was, so she would let people talk. Then two-thirds of the way through a meeting, when you had all these differences out on the table, she’d say: “Well I think we may be looking at this from the wrong angle. What would happen if...” And say something from a completely different angle. You’d think: what is she up to? Then you’d go away and you’d talk and you’d see she’d actually lifted it out of its framework. That’s not a side that people associate with her, but she could be quite creative.

Yes, Minister moments

I often think that the real Yes, Minister moments were ones that if you’d had them in Yes, Minister everyone would have said: “They’ve lost the plot.” There was a day when we were separating the oil and gas assets of British Gas and the minister needed to appoint a CEO for this company quickly. He came to see me because I was in charge of HR. Now, the minister had a very good private secretary who I knew wanted to move on so I suggested making him CEO, and the minister agreed. Imagine if you watched a Yes, Minister where Jim Hacker wanted to set up an oil company and they made Bernard the CEO of it...

Or another occasion Michael Howard was being quite difficult about something that the Home Office really needed him to move on. I went to see him and he clearly was in a mood not to be helpful so I said to him: “Home secretary, I know you can out-argue me – you always can you’re a marvellous barrister. And obviously we’re not arguing this right with you. If you were in my shoes what arguments would you use?” He brightened up and said “Oh well of course you’re not putting it very well to me; I think you should frame the arguments differently…” He did a brilliant reshaping of the arguments. I said: “Excellent. Could you now assume that I used those arguments, and will you agree?” He gave a lovely laugh and said: “Ok, you win. But do you think we’re getting a bit too like Yes Minister?”

Working with ministers

In a way I saw my ministers as my clients. You observe them, you learn what they’re good at, and what they’re not good at. You learn what they want to achieve and you think about how best you can help them. They’re not often there that long so you want to help them make the most of their opportunity while they’re in power. 

Becoming cabinet secretary

I was never told I was being interviewed, I was just told Mr Blair wanted to meet me so we had a chat. I was then summoned for a chat with [Lord Chancellor] Derry Irvine, and then I got summoned by Robin [Butler, Wilson’s predecessor as cabinet secretary] who said: “You’re not to show it, you know, but the PM is going to ask to see you this afternoon and say he wants you to be my successor and I want you to say yes.” So I turned up later and Blair said: “Warmest congratulations.” I said: “What on?” And he said: “Oh come on, Robin must have told you.” I don’t think anybody had ever actually asked me if I wanted the job. Not that it mattered, it was a huge honour. 

Cabinet government under Tony Blair

I made absolutely sure that the system of cabinet committees and collective decision making was running, because it has a constitutional role that is more permanent than just one government. It was absolutely a conscious decision and the truth is that under the Blair government [the cabinet system] was quite active among departments. The only person who didn’t really like it was Mr Blair: he preferred to work more informally. But I made sure committees were constituted, updated, were running properly, the secretariats were doing their job. I’d put things to him if we changed membership of a committee or the terms of reference, or if we did a review of the shape of the committees in the light of the manifesto. I made sure that he was party to it even if he wasn’t very interested.

His submissions to Blair on the use of power (see box)

Fairly soon within my first year, I did four notes for him on the job of prime minister and how to be effective in government, because he’d said he felt as though he was sitting in a Rolls Royce and didn’t know how to make it move. If you like, they were four essays about how to make the machine move. I haven’t read them for the best part of 20 years so I cannot remember them with any clarity, but I remember writing them, ferociously carving out time to get them right. 

The last one was very personal to him – I was actually slightly surprised to find it had made it into the archives. I gave it to him personally and said: “This is from me to you, it’s my best effort to give you advice.”

Civil service reform

The civil service can be very nimble. It was nimble to adapt to privatisation: we began from a position of pretty big ignorance and we ended up teaching the City all sorts of things they hadn’t thought of. We responded pretty rapidly to all the Thatcher reforms – the changes to financial management and the Next Steps agenda. All of that was  pretty radical change implemented pretty responsively. 
Big change only comes when there is a clear vision which is credible – which convinces people – and when you have leadership which makes it very clear that politically it’s what ministers want. Too often the message gets diluted because ministers are busy, [and] it isn’t really what they want. And the civil service is focused on what ministers want, rather than whatever the rhetoric is. They are very good at looking past the rhetoric to the reality. 

Reading about himself in other people’s diaries

The truth is I buy these books and I don’t read them. I had a lovely secretary who flagged up every reference to me in the Alastair Campbell diaries. Other people tell me from time to time and it makes me even more determined not to look. Both Campbell and [Jonathan] Powell I’m told – and I have looked at some excerpts – were clearly critical of me and that surprised me because I thought I got on with them fine. It was only when I read some of the extracts that I discovered we didn’t.

His proudest moment

I am hugely proud of so many moments – do I have to choose? I was proud when we privatised Britoil; I was proud when we announced the new nuclear power policy under Tony Benn; I was proud when I was promoted to be head of the new Economic and Domestic Secretariat [under Margaret Thatcher]. Robert Armstrong [the then-cabinet secretary] invited me to go and see him and I genuinely had no idea what it was about. He said: “I’ve got this vacancy, there are lots of people with claims upon it ahead of you but for various reasons I don’t think any of them can be spared so I’m going to chance my arm and put you in there.” At that moment his private secretary appeared at my elbow with two glasses of sherry – in my memory they were on a silver tray. It was midday. That was just such a marvellous moment.

Becoming perm sec of the Home Office

It was a difficult move. Robin told me on the phone, and it was like a bombshell. I still to feel guilty about that move because I had got a big reform programme going in the energy department. I had been even that afternoon talking to large groups of staff on what I thought we needed to do differently and how we were going to do it: I committed myself to it.

And then the Home Office was so unhappy about my arrival. The hostility when I arrived was the most difficult thing in my career. They were very opposed to the home secretary at the time and they saw me as his man. It was a horrible, horrible episode. To be fair to them and to me, by the time I left nearly four years later they were incredibly nice to me. They gave me a pair of cufflinks in breach of the rules on leaving gifts. I was so proud that they had broken the rules because, as a department, they are very conscious of rules. 

An awkward SCS conference

I’d commissioned a review of the Home Office and then consulted on it all across the organisation, which included a conference of all the Home Office senior civil service. The aim was to discuss this reform programme and how to take it forward. But, after the breakout sessions, Penny Jones – a consultant who had co-authored the report and was facilitating – came to me, and said: “They’re not doing what you want them to do – they’re talking about you, personalising it. We have to confront this.” So I sat up at the head of the room and Penny Jones stood up and said to them all: “You’re not discussing how to carry forward change, you’re discussing Richard Wilson. If the things he’s doing are so wrong, let’s get them out in the open now. Who’s going to talk first?” I thought: “Dear God, this is going to go badly.”
No one said anything. Then, in the end, one or two stood up and agreed that their concerns weren’t about me but about what was happening to them. We passed the corner. 

New Labou

When I started as cabinet secretary I asked to see all the key players in New Labour and I thought in my innocence: “This is like Kennedy, this is Camelot, a new generation coming to power and I’ve been given the privilege of helping them implement and change government and do exciting things.” But when I talked to them, all they wanted to talk about was the relationship between Tony and Gordon [Brown]. It was taking up too much of their energy. 

They came to power with a very close set of relationships. I’ve written before that they staged a coup against the Labour party and then a coup against the government machine. They were a very tight little group and I was trying to obtain a foothold in that group and try to bridge that tight group with the rest of the government. I don’t think they had any idea what the rest of government was like. 


Frank advice to Tony Blair

In 1999, Wilson submitted four analyses to Blair on “Getting the most out of Government”; “Getting Departments to Respond”; “Improving Rebuttal” and “The Nature of Power”. The last has been described by official historian Dr Ian Beesley as a “heartfelt submission…so sensitive that Wilson handed it to Blair directly rather than through the normal channels of Number 10”. Beesley adds that the final submission contains the “most powerful example of truth to power on record”. Wilson advised Blair: “You have the levers to hand. You choose not to use them. Do not try to use the Policy Unit to run the government; do not attempt to divorce permanent secretaries from their cabinet ministers; do not be tempted by Napoleonic models, shifting resources such as the PIU [Policy Implementation Unit] from the Cabinet Office to Number 10; above all do not spend too much time on foreign affairs. It is of course fun, and much easier than domestic policy. But the FCO is just one of 20 departments and wins you the fewest votes.”

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is Civil Service World's senior reporter. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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