John Smith attack on civil service prompted stinging response from cab sec Robin Butler

Newly-released papers reveal that Butler asked PM John Major to defend civil service from then Labour leader’s attacks

Photo: PA

By Jonathan Owen

01 Aug 2018

An attack on the civil service by Labour leader John Smith prompted a furious response from then-cabinet secretary Robin Butler, according to newly released papers marked ‘personal and in confidence’ from the Cabinet Office.

Smith made critical remarks about the civil service in a speech on the standards and practice of government, made on 28 January 1993. Just days later, Butler wrote to the prime minister, John Major, to express his anger at the comments made by the Labour leader.

In a letter dated 1 February 1993, he said: “I was dismayed by Mr Smith’s heavily publicised speech on Thursday. It recycled all the conventional criticisms both about ministers and the civil service."


Butler added: “He also threw in the old slur about the revolving door, saying that “increasingly…senior civil servants pass directly from top jobs in Whitehall to top jobs in industries closely connected with their former departments”, although I know of no recent incident which has caused criticisms in this area.”

The cabinet secretary commented: “What is so depressing about this speech is that Mr Smith does not seem to have realised the weight which ought to attach to criticisms of this sort in the mouth of the leader of the opposition.”

He accused the Labour leader of having a “lack of objectivity” in failing to refer to a report on the Labour-controlled Lambeth Council “which, in the words of the chief executive, produced evidence of malpractice ‘unprecedented in the history of local government’.”

Butler added: “I cannot cross swords with Mr Smith publicly, but, if you or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster [William Waldegrave] have no objection, I propose to write to him privately to express my concern about the effects of such criticisms coming from him and offering to discuss with him the specific criticisms of the civil service."

He told the prime minister “it would be reassuring to the civil service if, at the political level, you could say something publicly to counter Mr Smith's attack. An opportunity in your speech to the Civil Service Club on Thursday.”

The cabinet secretary had drafted a form of words “countering Mr Smith’s attack and asserting your own confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the civil service.”

The letter concluded: "I would be very grateful if my intention of writing a head of the civil service letter to Mr Smith could be treated in confidence."

In a reply sent the next day, Alex Allan, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, said: “He agrees that you should write privately to Mr Smith to express your concerns. And the prime minister will take the opportunity in his speech to the civil service club on Thursday to say something publicly.”

As promised, Major did just that.

He mounted a spirited defence of the civil service which included some of the exact wording that Sir Robin had suggested.

The prime minister said: “I am a very firm believer in the need for a high quality, impartial civil service. And I know from my personal experience that that is what this country has.”

Major took Smith to task over his attack on the civil service and said: “I do regret his comments about the civil service and civil servants, who rightly in my view maintain the principle of not entering the political debate.”

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