By Suzannah Brecknell

15 Jun 2018

The first woman to become a private secretary to the prime minister shares her recollections of Thatcher, the Treasury and the Next Steps Unit with Suzannah Brecknell. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Who? The first woman to become a private secretary to the prime minister, Caroline Slocock would later become a senior official in HM Treasury and the education department before being appointed CEO of the Equal Opportunities Commission. She is now a director of think tank Civil Exchange.

The venue: Pescatori: Fish, fish and more fish, with fine Italian flavours on Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia.

The menu

  • Starter: Scottish smoked salmon and asparagus, grilled vegetables, pesto and pinoli parmesan crisps
  • Main: Grilled swordfish and salmoriglio sauce, breast of Norfolk chicken filled with spinach and fontina lemon
  • We drank: Sparkling water, cappuccino, americano

We discussed

​Her abiding memories of Margaret Thatcher

Certainly one is the image of her when I first met her [when being interviewed for the post of private secretary]. It was so different from my own expectations – I watched the Spitting Image puppet of her as a woman in a man’s suit handbagging her colleagues and so I was expecting that, really. And what I saw was her coming down this narrow staircase at No 10, slightly sideways, carrying this bowl of hyacinths [see excerpt]. It was a very womanly gesture in its own right that she brought flowers down, but to do it for me was quite a touching thing. It was so welcoming.

Another is when we were writing a speech together and she invited me up to the flat to have a meal. She was washing up the dishes between courses, just to save time. I was very anxious at that moment thinking: “Should I be offering to wash dishes? I ought to be doing it.” But then I thought: “No, I am a civil servant, that wouldn’t be appropriate”. I just didn’t really know where to put myself. But now as an older woman I look back at that image and I recognise it completely. One is spending all one’s time just doing things to make the most of every second on lots of different levels, the domestic as well as the political.

But I think the big moment, which has haunted me since, is seeing her in the Cabinet Room crying as she read her resignation statement. It was just a shock to see someone who was so good at commanding a room and so in control really struggling to get the words out.

Writing her book, People Like Us, about her reflections on Thatcher’s last year in power

Part of the book for me was about people understanding what it is like to be a civil servant. In that private office, we were regarded externally as part of the problem. Charles Powell [Thatcher’s key foreign policy adviser from 1983 to 1990], and Bernard Ingham [her press secretary] were seen by many people as cutting her off from the world. So I really wanted to explore that. Of course the main story is about Margaret Thatcher, but I do think there are very few books written about civil servants and I think people just don’t really understand what you do as a civil servant, especially when you’re close to ministers like that.

The book’s messages about women and power have come at a good time, as we’re thinking about women’s issues this year, but issues about civil servants are also very relevant. Olly Robbins, who worked for me at the Treasury, is now at No 10 being attacked by ministers as if he’s operating independently from the government. It is a bizarre situation, so the civil service feels a bit beleaguered at the moment, and in the midst of a really difficult task, and I think the private office is in some respects the sharp end of that difficult relationship.

Thatcher and Charles Powell

At the time I was quite worried about Charles’s role in the office. I thought he was too close to her. I decided in the end to show him the draft of the book, the bits that affected him, and he talked to me about it. [In her book, Slocock says Powell explained that he understood he was overstepping traditional civil service norms, but was doing so not because he had become politically close to her, but for institutional reasons.]

“I was very anxious, thinking: “Should I be offering to wash dishes?” But then I thought: “No, I am a civil servant, that wouldn’t be appropriate”

I felt some respect for his position: I think he did cross a civil service line and it’s not surprising that he decided to leave the civil service afterwards, but his view was that we were a very small office – much, much smaller than No 10 is now – and she was trying change the status quo. She was often battling against her ministers and also the departments that lay behind them, which was often thousands of people. So he thought it was his job to fight her battles for her and amplify her voice. He did that remarkably well in lots of ways.

The civil service coming under attack

I don’t remember ministers ever attacking civil servants in my day and Margaret Thatcher had a great respect for the civil service. She could be frustrated by what she saw as tactics, but she really appreciated the service we provided for her. There were disputes, obviously, about Charles and Bernard, but they were the exception. I think minsters understood that if you start attacking the civil service then you’ve really got a problem on your hands. You risk undermining the only machine you have that is equipped for what you’ve got to do.

Thatcher’s scientific background

She was the first prime minister with a scientific background. She and I wrote a speech together in which she talked about science being like a mystery story that you could solve. I think there was some sense in which she thought that if you applied yourself, you mastered all the facts, then you could find a solution [to any problem]. I came from an arts background and at the time almost everyone around me in the civil service did. There might have been a few economists but certainly in the Treasury there were very few scientists. That quality of believing that if you don’t know something then you can find it, you can solve things, is a fantastic quality in her. It gave her a belief that things could be different.

What makes a good minister

I think being decisive is always a plus for civil servants because when you put advice into the box you don’t want the result to be “please refer” which is what we used to get a lot from John Major. With Thatcher, she would clear things every night and on the whole she’d make a decision. I mean it’s a flaw sometimes because it means you don’t necessarily listen as much as you should do, but it was impressive and I think by that particular measure – which the civil service loves, the decisiveness, she was very strong.

Even though I disagree with quite a few things that she did, I think the fact that she had a vision was a real plus. Leaders really do need to have some sense of what they want to achieve, and be determined to pursue it, not just take on a set of issues given to them by civil servants or by focus groups.

I also worked for Margaret Hodge and greatly admired her. A lot of people thought she was very difficult but I thought she was fantastic: she really wanted to achieve certain things and nobody was going to stop her from doing it.

Excerpt from People Like Us

I've already walked up these stairs once – on the day Andrew [Turnbull] interviewed me amongst many other candidates for the job. He is the principal private secretary, the most senior of the five private secretaries and my future line manager. He later goes on to become the head of the civil service and cabinet secretary. He holds a lot of power – but nothing compared to the woman I am about to meet.

It’s not how I expected it to be.

The first thing I notice are her high heels and attractive shoes, as she walks slightly sideways down the very steep stairs from the No. 10 flat to the landing below, on which I am now standing. She’s wearing a grey suit, she’s smiling and carrying a bowl of blue hyacinths and saying, ‘Caroline, how nice to meet you. I brought these hyacinths down here for you. I thought you’d like them.’ With surprise, I realise she’s the same height as me, not tall at all.

She takes me through into her study, places the bowl on a small occasional table between us and invites me to sit down in one of two feminine, chintz-covered armchairs. She sits in the other, crosses her legs, of which she is clearly proud, and folds her hands in a sympathetic listening pose. I do the same. She looks much younger than most women at sixty-four, almost ageless, and she seems entirely comfortable within her own skin.

She asks me questions about myself and, fighting through the nerves, I tell her about Next Steps, how Lord Young liked my work and how I believe in change. My mouth is still working, if a little dry, and I’m making eye contact with the most powerful woman I’ve ever met.

Amazingly, she listens – and she likes. She smiles at me, offers me the job enthusiastically and takes me downstairs to show me the private office.

Her proudest achievements

As a civil servant, I think I am probably most proud of the expansion I achieved in childcare and early years education and I think the reforms I put in place on public expenditure were also very important. But one of the things I am very proud of is what I did in the Treasury when I was head of HR. One of the problems was that women just couldn’t break into the most prestigious jobs, so we opened up all the jobs to part-time working and introduced an application system so you could apply for jobs instead of just going for a favoured candidate I also tried to tackle the long hours culture by introducing flexible working for all grades, not just the most junior, and a linked “take Friday off every other weekend” system – people started to do it quite routinely. We also introduced a competency framework to emphasise management skills and working with people, which were not particularly valued in the Treasury at the time.

The Treasury culture at the time

It was a really big issue: Treasury women were coming to me, senior women, and saying, “We can’t thrive here”. In the end I decided to leave myself but I did try my best to change that culture, which was partly the long hours and also a bullying culture. But there was resistance. I remember going in to a meeting with a very senior Treasury official describing all the changes the management board were trying to achieve. He just sat there silently for a few minutes, he had his whole team around him so it was just me his team him and he said: “I haven’t any idea what you’re talking about. What we need here is sharp elbows.”  It was designed to humiliate me in front of his staff.

“Civil servants are so stretched that they have very limited time to forge relationships with people outside government”

Working in the Next Steps Unit, introducing major reforms to the civil service, in a team described later as “misfits … disruptive mavericks armed with an unwavering commitment to changing things”

It was a fantastic job. I was a Grade 7, part of a very tiny group taking on the whole civil service, which I really believed needed reform. On my brief I had DSS, the benefit service, DVLA, lots of different, very big parts of government. It was me dealing with the whole departments, right up to the permanent secretaries. So I had to really break through that hierarchy that is so prevalent in the civil service and of course No 10 was another version of that. 

One of the other things I did that I thought was a great achievement was on childcare with Margaret Hodge where I went almost like a guerrilla back to the Treasury to secure funding. The Department for Education wasn’t particularly keen on childcare then, so I went under the wire, because I had Treasury contacts and negotiated a large chunk to come in for childcare. That wouldn’t have come in if we allowed the department to do the work for us and I was really proud of that. I was breaking through the hierarchies and traditional ways of doing things.

How she sees the civil service now

I still admire the civil service. It’s an extraordinary institution and to be protected, but I do see its weaknesses and one of the issues is that because people move around so frequently – which I loved when I was doing the job, I love doing fresh jobs and exciting roles – they go so quickly that they really don’t have the expertise.

The other thing I’m very aware of outside of government is that civil servants, and other public servants too, are so stretched that they have very limited time to forge relationships with people outside government. Also, I don’t think that they recognise the importance of it because the world is still very geared towards servicing the needs of ministers and their political priorities.

I worked with Gordon Brown at the time we were introducing Public Service Agreements. It was a New Labour model of government where it was kind of like a management machine: pull the levers and set the targets from on high and then, down on the ground these things would actually happen. But reality doesn’t quite work like that: things are much more complex. Most of those issues actually have a lot of other players, not just government players, so you need to understand all of those different forces, and build a shared agenda.

A few years ago there was a reform, under [then-Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude, of the civil service competency framework. There was a phrase about delivering outcomes and he inserted “commercial” before outcomes. Friends of mine who are civil servants say that recently management of budgets is seen as the critical thing. But most of government is about delivering social and economic outcomes, not commercial ones, and those outcomes can only be delivered by people working together, across society.


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