The Double Life of the Mandarin

The Cabinet Office 1916-2016: The Birth of Modern Government by Anthony Seldon with Jonathan Meakin
The Cabinet Office 1916-2016: The Birth of Modern Government
by Anthony Seldon with Jonathan Meakin 
Biteback Publishing 384 pp £25

Most books on the machinery of government tend to be dull, but this book is an exception because Anthony Seldon has long experience as an educator as well as being an authority on modern British government. The introduction, moreover, places the Cabinet Office in a wider historical and governmental context. The result is a book that is well informed and engaging and which provides new perspectives on many of the key political issues of the last century. Effective use is made of a wide variety of sources, ranging from government documents to private information and the views of other historians.

The emergence and growth of the Cabinet secretariat was part of a wider bureaucratisation of government in the 20th century, particularly in response to the exceptional demands created by modern warfare.

Maurice Hankey, who was the Cabinet secretary for the first 20 years of its existence, had previously learned his trade as the secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, created by Balfour after the Boer War. His successor, Edward Bridges, had learned to write accurate records under pressure as an officer on the Western Front during the First World War.

The creation of the Cabinet secretariat also reflected the growing status and requirements of the prime minister in an increasingly democratic political system. Cabinet secretaries have always had two roles, which have sometimes proved incompatible. On the one hand they are the servant of the Cabinet and attend all its meetings. On the other hand, they advise the prime minister not only about Cabinet meetings and committees but also with respect to government policy in general. Most Cabinet secretaries have given their first loyalty to the premier but that has not always been reciprocated. Some prime ministers, notably Thatcher and Blair, preferred to rely on the advice and support of their own personal staff at Number 10 rather than that provided round the corner by the Cabinet secretary and Office.

In the meta-narrative of British political history, Cabinet secretaries generally receive little attention. In this study, by contrast, the focus is firmly on the activities of the 11 Cabinet secretaries from 1916 to the present. It reveals that they played an important role not only in the implementation of government policies but also in their gestation. That was evident, for example, in Britain’s negotiations with the European Union and in the selection of new ministers. Their influence was memorably satirised in the 1980s TV programme Yes, Prime Minister. But equally significant, at other times, was their lack of involvement in controversial decisions, such as that of Blair to take part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

The book’s focus on the top mandarins is understandable, though it is unfortunate that little is said about the work of their many subordinates in the Cabinet Office.

Roland Quinault

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