Book review: Exceeding My Brief, Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant

A tale of integrity and talent triumphing in the corridors of power warms Sue Cameron’s heart

Former civil servant Barbara Hosking published her memoirs at the age of 91. Credit: Sean Pines

By Sue Cameron

26 Jan 2018

Perhaps it is the cynical age in which we live but there is something rather shocking about an ambitious individual who rises steadily up the greasy pole of politics and then leaps off at a critical moment on a point of pure principle. It is all the more startling when it happens without fanfare halfway through an autobiography which had me rooting for the author from the outset.

Barbara Hosking’s book, Exceeding My Brief, Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant, tells how she came to London as a Cornish scholarship girl just after the second world war. At a time when the world of work was weighted against women she was determined to reach the top. She joined the Labour party, became a press officer at its Transport House HQ, was elected as a local councillor and set her sights on being an MP.

“‘I’ve been bullied by bigger men than [Ted Heath],’ I thought: ‘Nye Bevan for a start’" – Barbara Hosking

The trouble was that she believed passionately in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. When shortlisted by the Stroud constituency, she faced rigorous cross-questioning. How would she vote if a Labour government entered into a war with which she did not agree? Would she be loyal to her government? It was a bruising experience. “Going over their questions and my answers again and again, one certainty emerged: I was not really suited to party politics,” she says. A successful MP had to support party policies and that meant compromise – but not for Barbara. “I now was aware for the first time in my life that I thoroughly disliked political compromise,” she said. She withdrew her application – only to be told that she had been chosen as the candidate. They had particularly liked her honesty.

The upshot was that she opted for political neutrality and joined the civil service. Before long she was working in the No 10 press office, first for Labour PM Harold Wilson and then for Tory Ted Heath. Barbara, who has published her autobiography aged 91, has a knack for using just a few words to paint a vivid picture of incidents and personalities. At her first meeting with Heath, he almost shouted at her to speak up. She was unabashed, and recalls: “‘I’ve been bullied by bigger men than him,’ I thought: ‘Nye Bevan for a start’.’” She asked for a sherry – at which Heath laughed, told her to fill her glass and tell him what she thought. Her dry humour marked the speeches she drafted. At a boozy dinner for editors, Heath wanted to appeal for more considered responses to government announcements. His final words, crafted by Barbara, brought the house down: “And so gentlemen, I have one final request. If I can’t have a higher level of analysis, may I please ask for a higher level of abuse.”

She was with Heath at the initialling of the Treaty of Rome in Paris and the massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Alongside these international events, the book charts twentieth century sexism. When Barbara first joins the civil service, her boss tells her to buy flowers for him to give to her predecessor. When, towards the end of her career, she became information director at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, she was furious to find that her male deputy was paid more than her. She barged into the office of the director general asking: “Are you paid less than your deputy?” Her pay rise was implemented that afternoon.

This is a warm, funny and illuminating book that guides readers through one woman’s journey down the corridors of Whitehall and through a slowly changing society in the second half of the twentieth century. She did so at a time when being a woman and, in Barbara’s case, a gay woman meant the path was strewn with obstacles. It is a tribute to her guts, her resilience and her charm that she has emerged triumphant. 

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