By Sir Anthony Seldon

01 Mar 2017

The Cabinet Office has been at the heart of government for the past 100 years – yet it remains shrouded in mystery. Historian Sir Anthony Seldon – author of new book The Cabinet Office 1916-2016 – writes for CSW about the department's vital role in British government

1) The role of cabinet secretary gets its origins from medieval times 

The job of the cabinet secretary has clear antecedents in the chief advisers to monarchs dating back to the medieval era. Their jobs, which had a variety of titles, were, in essence, to be the senior adviser to the monarch, to help coordinate their government, keep the realm safe, protect its records and accounts of its history, and ensure that the realm was not undermined internally. Monarchs from 1530 ruled from within Whitehall Palace, just as cabinet secretaries have operated from offices on its site. 

2) Modern British government can be traced back to the creation of the cabinet secretariat in 1916 

The size and breadth of government expanded greatly in the First World War, and rather than shrinking back to its 1914 size after it was over, it continued to expand, with new departments principally in the economic and social policy spheres (eg. labour, health and transport). The government needed the Cabinet Office to act as the glue binding these often very diverse Whitehall departments together in a massively expanded postwar government.

3) Prime ministers are most effective when they work with their Cabinet Office 

Prime ministers have been at their most effective when they have worked with the Cabinet Office, rather than trying to operate their own presidential, top-down systems. Lloyd George and Churchill worked closely with the Cabinet Office in both world wars, while two of Britain’s most successful peacetime prime ministers, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher (contrary to popular perception), worked very successfully with officials and mostly within the norms of cabinet government.

When the partnership works well, the cabinet secretary is like the left-hand side of the brain, emphasising the logical, analytical and objective dimensions, while the prime minister provides the right-hand side strengths of being intuitive, politically aware and subjective. When both work together in harmony, optimal results flow. 

4) The 11 cabinet secretaries have all made distinctive and different contributions 

To highlight but a few:

  • Maurice Hankey (1916–38) moulded the cabinet secretariat and ensured its survival.
  • Edward Bridges (1938–46) led the Cabinet Office with eminence throughout the Second World War, working in harmony with his military counterpart, Hastings Ismay, without a trace of jealousy or difficulty, creating the modern Cabinet Office and committee system in the process.
  • Norman Brook (1947–62) adapted and developed the system to meet the requirements of recovery after the war, the expansion of the welfare state, the decline of British world power and two floundering prime ministers.
  • Robert Armstrong (1979–87) brought back together the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the home civil service (HCS), guiding Margaret Thatcher towards accommodation with the Irish government in Dublin over Northern Ireland.
  • Robin Butler (1988–98) guided a declining Thatcher through her last two years, supported a beleaguered John Major at war with his party, and inducted Tony Blair.
  • Finally, Jeremy Heywood (2012–present) helped steer the coalition government through a series of issues to its conclusion in 2015, oversaw two referendums, and accelerated the modernisation programme of the civil service initiated by his predecessors. 

5) The cabinet secretary’s responsibilities are somewhat ambiguous 

The job of cabinet secretary has an unresolved ambiguity between its responsibilities to the prime minister and to the cabinet as a whole. This has inevitably led to periodic tensions with the prime minister, especially with those who see themselves as presidential rather than primus inter pares. Their advisory role to the PM is another ambiguity: Hankey made great play of retaining the title cabinet “secretariat”, and asserting, alongside Lloyd George, that its role was merely taking minutes and executing secretarial roles. But when does being asked for advice by the prime minister on the conduct of cabinet business and appointments stray into offering policy advice? And promoting their own views? No cabinet secretary was more brazen about doing the last than the only one to have his diaries published: Maurice Hankey. 

6) The cabinet secretary’s remit has shifted over the last century 

Another ambiguity over the 100 years is whether the position of cabinet secretary should be combined with the headship of the HCS. For the first 30 years of creationist existence, the big Whitehall beasts were the permanent under-secretaries at the Treasury, Foreign Office and Home Office, and to a lesser extent those at the Admiralty and War Office. Norman Brook took over the joint title as head of the HCS. Split away again in 1963 on Brook’s retirement, the separated arrangement rarely worked satisfactorily.

Thankfully, Robert Armstrong took it back in two bites in 1981 and 1983. The cabinet secretary job remained double-hatted with the headship of the HCS thereafter, with a brief reversion to separation in 2012–14. The benefits of combining both jobs in one person is that the official head of the HCS is in daily contact with the political head of the executive. The disadvantage is that the job is exceedingly challenging for just one person to manage while doing justice to both roles.  

7) The responsibilities of the Cabinet Office have changed drastically

The functions of the Cabinet Office have come and gone, principally at the whim of the prime minister of the day, but also due to circumstances and changes in thinking about the role of government.

The core activities that have remained in the Cabinet Office are intelligence, advice on propriety, the machinery of government, the honours system and the historical section. Areas that have come and gone include science, statistics, civil contingencies, oversight of the Commonwealth, crisis management (through the Cabinet Office Briefing Room or COBR) and a plethora of agencies and units. The Cabinet Office was heavily involved in Britain’s relations with the European Union, and will now have an important role to play in Britain’s exit from that organisation. 

8) There have only been 11 cabinet secretaries 

During the last 100 years, there have been 18 permanent under-secretaries of the Treasury, 18 at the Home Office, 25 at the Foreign Office, but only 11 cabinet secretaries, who have served twice as long on average. They have become more valuable to the prime minister than any other senior official, in part because their field and expertise crosses all departments.

Cabinet secretaries have maintained high ethical standards during their time in office, and none has been a source of embarrassment after their retirement. This style of the Cabinet Office has been much copied across the globe. It is unusual in retaining, despite many challenges, its objectivity from the political masters that come and go from No 10 and across Whitehall. 

9) The Cabinet Office is a minute’s walk from Number 10 

Proximity is power. To be physically close to the leader is vital. During the Second World War, and since 1963, the Cabinet Office has been adjacent to the home and workspace of the prime minister. Proximity helps explain why the headship of the home civil service task often sits better with the cabinet secretary than with a more physically remote head. Cabinet secretaries have come from a narrow social band: they were all male, all white, all from England, and all middle-class. All but two (Turnbull and O’Donnell) attended British public schools, and all but two (Hankey and O’Donnell) went to university at Oxford or Cambridge as undergraduates. 

10) The guardians of the constitution have strong constitutions 

More than half of the 11 cabinet secretaries to date are alive to witness the centenary, from Robert Armstrong onwards. Heywood, born in 1961, has no recollection of seeing his two predecessors, Edward Bridges and Norman Brook, acting as honorary pallbearers at Churchill’s funeral on 30 January 1965. But, by a curious quirk the eleventh cabinet secretary was alive for a year before the first cabinet secretary, Maurice Hankey, died in January 1963. That means that throughout the whole of 1962, all eleven cabinet secretaries were alive at the same point in history.

Related articles
What's it really like being cabinet secretary? Six men who've done the job spill the beans
Coalition ministers open up about the "terrible" Cabinet Office, Whitehall churn – and reforming the "Rolls Royce" civil service
Sir Jeremy Heywood interview: the head of the UK civil service on a "very intense" few months

Share this page