Book review: Robin Butler - At the Heart of Power From Heath to Blair

Written by Sue Cameron on 7 July 2017 in Opinion

Robin Butler was at the heart of some of No. 10’s greatest crises. But Sue Cameron says a new biography doesn’t always capture the drama

Photo: PA

By Michael Jago, Biteback Publishing, RRP £25

When Robin Butler became cabinet secretary and head of the civil service nobody doubted that this was the start of a new era. TV’s Yes Minister series had brought the hitherto shadowy world of Whitehall into everyone’s sitting rooms. When I interviewed him for BBC2 just after his appointment, I asked how he described his job. “I explain it by saying I’m Sir Humphrey,” he replied, adding that while his fictional counterpart was “devious, sinuous and silky” those were “not at all the characteristics I have.” I should have asked if they were not precisely the characteristics required in a cabinet secretary.

Michael Jago’s new biography – Robin Butler: At the Heart of Power From Heath to Blair – suggests that Lord Butler, as he now is, was the bridge between the old style civil service and modern Whitehall. He certainly started out as a traditionalist. After Harrow and Oxford, where he belonged to the Bullingdon Club, he joined the Treasury and was told to reject all requests for extra funds because those with a good case would appeal to his superior. This was a Whitehall where hierarchy was sacrosanct.


Once at the top Butler, described as “Renaissance man on a bicycle”, did indeed shake up the system. He talked to civil servants outside Whitehall, he started opening recruitment to outsiders and put a new emphasis on delivery. Yet what makes his career compelling is not his record as a reformer nor even his battles to preserve cabinet government against overweening prime ministers and unelected special advisers. What makes his story fascinating are the insights it gives into the workings of British government over four decades. We see the young Butler in No. 10 serving first the Tory PM Edward Heath and then Labour’s Harold Wilson as principal private secretary and learning to adapt to their different styles. Heath ran Number Ten as a gentlemen’s club; under Wilson it was a “hotbed of intrigue, high temperament and sometimes hysterics” with Marcia Falkender, Wilson’s political secretary, hectoring him like a fishwife and using his official car to do her shopping.

Then came the imperious Margaret Thatcher demanding an extra £400m of cuts – by morning! When Butler reminded her how his team had indeed achieved this feat overnight, she replied: “I know. I should have asked for more.” He was with her the night of the IRA bomb attack in Brighton – and with her successor, John Major,when the IRA launched a mortar attack on Downing Street itself. He played a crucial part in securing the Good Friday agreement, jetting across the Irish sea for secret meetings. The Blairites called him “old Buttleshanks” and talked of the “death rattle of the mandarin class”. Long after he had left Whitehall, his official report on the intelligence information used in the build up to the disastrous Iraq war included a critique of sofa government. This was later followed by a Spectator interview in which he attacked Labour for doing whatever would get the best headlines the next day. It was all part of “bad government”.

Jago’s book is well researched, it touches on all the issues of the time and has some good anecdotes. Yet at times it is strangely bloodless. Butler’s period in Downing Street covered terrorism, wars and titanic power struggles. This is the stuff of high drama and should have made the book more of a Whitehall page-turner than it is. It is a pity, but this is still a worthwhile read – particularly for anyone interested in the history of government and the pointers it can give those trying to steer the ship of state today.

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Sue Cameron
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Sue Cameron is a writer and broadcaster concentrating on politics, parliament and Whitehall

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