Writing speeches for prime ministers, the courage required of civil servants, and coming out at 91… lunch with Barbara Hosking

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 14 February 2018 in Feature
Feature

The former press secretary to Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, breaks bread with Suzannah Brecknell

Photos by Sean Pines

Who? Born in Cornwall in 1926, Barbara Hosking moved to London in 1946 to pursue a career in journalism. After quickly learning the ropes, Barbara worked for three years at an African copper mine before beginning her ascent into politics and executive posts in the Labour Party. While applying to become a prospective parliamentary candidate for Stroud, however, she realised that politics was not for her, and joined the civil service as a press officer in the Ministry for Technology (Min Tech).

Within 10 years she was working at No 10, serving as a press officer to both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, and then moving on to become a private secretary to senior Conservative MP Geoffrey Johnson Smith and senior press officer in the environment department.

After leaving the civil service, Barbara joined the Independent Broadcasting Authority, where she was involved in the birth and early years of British breakfast television, and later became deputy chair of Westcountry Television, an ITV company.

The venue

Mon Plaisir, a welcoming, family run restaurant serving classic French food with a surprisingly good-value lunch menu.

The menu

Starter: Vegetable soup and potted duck

Main: Coley with ratatouille and lamb casserole

Dessert: a shared platter

We drank: Prosecco (on the house), house red and house white, espresso

We discussed

Working in No 10

Once the door closed and you were inside, it was a family and you were absolutely trusted. There was a certain pragmatism about things – if they felt you could do the job, you did. I was very lucky to be with Robert [Armstrong, then the PPS to the prime minister] and indeed with Robin Butler as private secretary. I was surrounded by educated men who all got firsts and I hadn’t been to university but they treated me as if I was as educated and as intelligent as they were, and I responded enormously to that opportunity and trust.

The first time she was asked to write a speech for Ted Heath – on the Common Market

My first reaction was one of surprise, which was also the reaction of the other people in the press room because it was not usual – it was sort of above my pay grade. But I was thrilled to bits so I spoke to Robert to ask if I should do it and he said: “Look, you’re in favour of the Common Market, so do it.”

Of course the only thing I could do was to write the speech that I would make about going into the Common Market. I brought in the arts and Shakespeare and the community of arts in Europe – that we are all European, which I believe very strongly.

"When you’re a permanent secretary making decisions I think courage is a very important quality because your decisions may be unpopular"

Then I showed it to Douglas Hurd [then a civil servant, future foreign secretary], who looked at it and said “it seems okay to me”, so we went up to the great man and it was page three before he started to object. So I felt pretty relaxed by then, I thought “three pages and he’s all right with that”. So that went down well and the next time there was a general speech I was allowed to do that and I loved it. I felt very honoured and proud to be asked, and there was something magical about listening to the radio and hearing your words coming out, spoken by the great man.

When, as a former employee of the Labour Party, she stopped feeling a slight dislike of Tory PM Ted Heath 

When I began to understand his missions, and loves in life: art was the love of his life and his mission was going into Europe. I shared those loves, so how could you not like somebody who was in a position of power to do something about it.

I was lucky – luck plays an awful lot of part I think in careers, and hard work is the other thing – when I went to a party at Chequers, his first party he gave after becoming prime minister. I saw this array of the most important people from the arts in this country and indeed in Europe who were all there. I thought: I’ve never met a prime minister who could do this, and I don’t know how far back you would have to go for a PM who could summon up, and want to summon up, the most brilliant artists.

Ministerial suspicions of civil servants

When politicians believe that the civil service is against them it is absurd. Any sensible adult can be impartial. When I was at Min Tech my boss there – the principal information officer – had retired young, as they do from the Army. He retired with the honorary rank of a general or a major general, and he was the most right-wing person I think I have ever met in my life. He was pro-hanging, pro-flogging, the lot. He worked flat out for Tony Benn.

What makes a good minister

Somebody who has got an informed view, who knows what they’re talking about and knows where they’re going. But it’s got to be based on information and knowledge rather than obstinacy. Preferably, someone who has worked in a job where they had a boss and where they had staff. I think the ideal cabinet minister is somebody perhaps like Michael Heseltine. But now it is, I think, almost entirely true that people are coming to the House because they’ve been researchers or in Central Office.

[Hugh] Gaitskell was another great minister, or John Smith. I mean there are Labour and Tories, Liberals – Vince Cable was an excellent minister, I have a Tory friend who was a minister in the Lords during the coalition and she loved working with him. But today I look around and I don’t know who is a good minister: I can’t think of one.

What makes a good permanent secretary?

I think courage is the first quality. There are a lot of qualities that are obviously accepted or they wouldn’t get to be in a senior role... so we know they’re intelligent, we know that they understand how to climb the ladder, but you don’t often have to display courage on the way up. When you’re a permanent secretary making decisions I think courage is a very important quality because your decisions may be unpopular. The second one is common sense. And then you should be fairly unshockable because sometimes, again, you can get quite senior and not have known a lot of life. You may learn things, they may not necessarily be pleasant things, about people who are a bit sadistic or like porn or something... you may have a view but don’t be shocked.

Mrs Thatcher

I really disapproved of her politics but I admired her courage and her willpower. She was patronised by the snobs of her own party because she was a grocer’s daughter, she wasn’t a “lady”. She won. 

Regrets

There’s a huge part of me that would have loved to have been an MP. I would have loved to have spoken in the House of Commons – I love making speeches. It sounds an awful, show-off thing to say, but I do love public speaking and I can speak fluently and interest an audience. I can make them laugh. Not sure if I can make them cry.

There are very few good speakers these days, which is an awful pity because there used to be wonderful speakers.

Nobody really makes a speech now, it’s all just quotes, but a really good speech can steer you; it can inspire you. I mean, Martin Luther King – fancy being there and hearing it… “I have a dream”. It is fantastic stuff.

The best orator I ever heard was Jim Griffiths [the prominent Labour MP who became the first secretary of state for Wales in the 1960s]. He could have been a preacher.

Coming out at 91, via her memoirs

I just found it surprising that many people didn’t know until they read the book. I don’t know what they thought, perhaps they thought I led a totally loveless life. I think it is unlikely today because – and it is marvellous – for instance, the leader of the Tories in Scotland is gay and she is very open about it.

I have to say one of the results of coming out at the age of 91 is that all the gay organisations are saying will you come and speak. Stonewall wanted me to come and speak at Queen Elizabeth Hall to an audience of 800. Twenty years ago I would have loved it, but I haven’t the energy to write the speech and deliver it well to do them credit now.

Telling off “Sir Something Something”

[In her memoirs, Barbara recalls that a perm sec was planning to wash down the outside of his department during the drought, and hosepipe ban, of 1976. Barbara knew this had to be stopped, so she called him to intervene.]

He was being very, very hierarchical, he said “I don’t think we’ve met” and you knew exactly what he was saying, he was putting me down. He obviously looked down in every sense from his office onto the press officer – however senior they were, they were below him.

So I thought, well the only thing I can do is ring Robert [Armstrong] because it just can’t happen. You have to show courage – any civil servant may find themselves in a position where they have to be brave, where if they know in their gut that the thing that is happening is wrong or that the person is making a mistake, they have got to speak up. We are there to safeguard not just the civil service but to safeguard the government.

An early version of ‘the Grid’, which she ran with the minister responsible for government communications, Geoffrey Johnson Smith

"Right through my career you can trace a sense of differentiation against women. When I first worked in London I had to clock in with the boys who were junior to me"

He was lovely, he was a Tory MP of course and before that he’d been at ITN, and we worked very well together. On Friday mornings we would get together 28 different departments and we would organise – those were innocent days, we called it coordination –  so that people didn’t bunch up their white papers on the same day and end up competing for space. We’d spread them all out. And clearly, I mean I don’t want to be disingenuous about this, if it was bad news we were more likely to put it somewhere where there was some good news or a big other story – we didn’t want to put on the front page so we did that, but we were just very innocent and young. It was not that long since we first had the PA machine in No 10.

But we loved those meetings, particularly with Willie Whitelaw, because boy, was he a good politician. He knew exactly what the implications were of any policy you were discussing. It was a joy because it’s always a joy for a civil servant to be talking to a politician on the same wavelength: they have different jobs but they meet with an understanding of what those jobs are and how they interact. That’s the joy of it, when it works. 

Promoting the National Trust on Blue Peter

[One of Barbara’s Whitehall roles saw her tasked with promoting the National Trust. She decided to run a promotion on Blue Peter allowing children to buy a trust membership for £1 to give to their parents.]

That was really quite funny because I was thrilled, I thought I’d done a really good job and Biddy [Baxter, the TV show’s editor] was pleased too. I actually hadn’t realised how strong the impact would be – that many hundreds and thousands of children would get their mothers to write in and it was an avalanche. It was when I first realised the power of five minutes on television.

I thought I was going to be congratulated, but I got told off. I was “stopping people from important things” [as they handled the demand]. In the end, though, the minister was congratulated – so it didn’t affect my career.

Treatment of women

Right through my career you can trace a sense of differentiation against women. It’s obvious in things like the fact that when I first worked in London I had to clock in with the boys who were junior to me, [but] the men didn’t have to clock in. When I first joined the civil service, I was asked to go out and buy flowers for the woman I was replacing. At an ambassadorial dinner for journalists in Brussels with Geoffrey Johnson Smith, ladies were asked to leave the room, but I needed to be with Geoffrey to brief the journalists, who were all men. I said: “I am not a lady, I am a private secretary” and I joined the men because that was my job. But it was awful – I mean I’m not that brave a person and I don’t willingly break the rules.

Her philosophy in life

If I have a philosophy it is that if you are in a position of authority it is so easy with a helping hand to help somebody good to climb the ladder. To make a phone call or email to say: “I believe this person is applying for a job with you, they work terribly well with me. Really take them seriously.”  How much does it cost you? Even now, although I am no longer a player, I have indirect power through the people I know, so I can still ring people. And you can give advice – how much does it cost?

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is the editor of Civil Service World. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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