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Loyalty and scepticism in Whitehall

by William Keegan

Loyalty and scepticism in Whitehall


The title of Sir Brian Unwin’s fascinating memoir, With Respect, Minister: A View from Inside Whitehall, is a play on the famous BBC television series Yes, Minister. The show’s theme was the way that, while nominally in charge, the minister, Jim Hacker, was continually outwitted by his senior civil service official Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Most British prime ministers and chancellors publish memoirs, but books by former Treasury officials are rare. The most memorable in recent years is Decline to Fall by the late Sir Douglas Wass, on the 1976 sterling crisis when Britain was forced, in humiliating circumstances, to borrow from the International Monetary Fund.

Denis Healey, chancellor at the time, complained in his memoirs that if only the Treasury’s economic forecasts had not been so bad, recourse to the IMF could have been avoided. Wass, then senior Treasury civil servant, took issue with Healey’s view. Unwin, one of the officials attempting to control soaring public expenditure at the time, endorses Wass’ opinion.

When Wass died earlier this year, some obituarists maintained that he had been a model for the fictional Appleby. But junior officials who worked for Wass at the time disputed this, arguing that he was not at all manipulative, but the model of a civil servant: one who gives the best advice but accepts that ministers decide, and who understands the duty of the civil service to implement these decisions to the best of their ability, whatever they personally believe.

Unwin makes clear in these illuminating memoirs that he backs the Wass school of thought. Yet the phrase ‘with respect, minister’ is a neat way of capturing the scepticism sometimes felt by civil servants.

The peaks of Whitehall
Unwin’s route to the Treasury and Cabinet Office was via the old Commonwealth Relations Office. During his colonial phase Unwin was close to the scene when Dag Hammarskjöld, United Nations secretary-general, was killed in a plane crash in 1961. Hammarskjöld was due to attend secret peace talks with Moise Tshombe, president of the province of Katanga, which had broken away from the Belgian Congo. Conspiracy theories about the crash have raged ever since, but Unwin is convinced the crash was due to pilot error, not foul play.

On a lighter note, he tells another story from his days in west Africa about presenting a gift of books to the Ghana Gliding School and how the director – ‘an attractive, blue-eyed, silver-blonde female in her 50s’ – offered to take him on a flight.

‘It was only later that I learned (I had inexplicably not been briefed beforehand) that she was Hanna Reitsch, the celebrated Luftwaffe ace and test pilot and Hitler’s personal pilot,’ writes Unwin.

From there on Unwin’s gliding is confined to the government departmental peaks of Whitehall, and finally to the presidency of the European Investment Bank. The EIB finances Europe’s infrastructure projects, including many in Britain, but receives precious little recognition in the UK.

‘If the prime minister says…’
While in Whitehall Unwin was closely involved in one of the most prominent skirmishes Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had with Europe over the vexed 1980s budget rebate. Here again, while himself being a passionate European, he did his civil service job in arguing for Thatcher, and pushing a hard bargain. He was hardly a ‘Thatcherite’, but seems to have had a good relationship with the prime minister.

He admits, however, to having pushed the ‘with respect, minister’ approach to the limit when insisting, as a serious bird watcher, that Thatcher was wrong to claim she had heard a nightingale singing early in the year. Overhearing Unwin’s alternative view of nightingales in January, the cabinet secretary took him aside and said: ‘A word of advice, Brian. If the prime minister says she heard a nightingale outside No.10 [Downing Street] last night, she heard a nightingale.’

Unwin’s natural enthusiasm rings through. He saw it as the ultimate compliment when Jacques Delors, European Commission president, criticised him for being trop dynamique. Apart from some great stories, this memoir gives a vivid insider account of how the minutiae of British government work.
Loyal civil servants must sometimes bite their tongues. They may believe in the concept of public service, but Unwin and colleagues were understandably shocked when Sir Geoffrey Howe, chancellor between 1979-83, asked: ‘Why some of us were still working in the Treasury and not out there in the City earning much higher salaries.’ With respect, minister…

With respect

William Keegan is Senior Economics Commentator for The Observer.