Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing street The Mile End Group Mile End Films Queen Mary, Univeristy of London

"This project is a great example of how collaboration between government, academia and business can help find innovative ways to engage the public in the work of Government. I'm sure it will be a key resource for historians for many years to come." Sir Jeremy Heywood

The Cabinet Secretaries

To watch an interview select a Cabinet Secretary below

About The Project

About the project

The Cabinet Secretary is one of those uniquely British positions in government that exudes power. But how that power is exercised and with what result remain largely a mystery.

Read more about the project

The interviewers

Interviews were carried out by Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield and Dr Anthony Seldon.

Read the interviewers' biographies

Lord Robert Armstrong
1979 – 1988

The Rt Hon Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, GCB, CVO entered the Civil Service in 1964. After a three-year period in the Cabinet Office, he joined the Treasury in 1967, becoming Under Secretary the following year. In 1970 he was appointed Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Edward Heath. He then moved to the Home Office, becoming Permanent Under Secretary in 1977. He was appointed Cabinet Secretary in 1979 and served throughout Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership until 1987.

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Lord Robin Butler
1988 – 1998

The Rt Hon Lord Butler of Brockwell, KG, GCB, CVO, PC entered the Civil Service in 1961. He was Private Secretary to Edward Heath between 1972 and 1974, to Harold Wilson between 1974 and 1975, Principal Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher between 1982 and 1985, and Second Permanent Secretary to HM Treasury between 1985 and 1987. He was Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service from 1988 until 1998 during the Premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair.

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Lord Richard Wilson
1998 - 2002

Lord Wilson of Dinton, GCB entered the Civil Service in 1966, joining the Board of Trade. He subsequently served in a number of departments including twelve years in the Department of Energy. He headed the Economic Secretariat in the Cabinet Office under Margaret Thatcher from 1987 to 1990, and after two years in the Treasury was appointed Permanent Secretary of the Department of the Environment in 1992. He became Permanent Under Secretary of the Home Office in 1994 and Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service in 1998 until 2002.

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Lord Andrew Turnbull
2002 - 2005

Lord Turnbull, KCB, CVO entered the Civil Service in 1970, joining the Treasury. After a two year secondment to the IMF in Washington from 1976 to 1978, he returned to the UK, becoming Private Secretary of Economic Affairs to the Prime Minister between 1983 and 1985. This was followed by his service as Under Secretary to the Prime Minister from 1985 to 1988, and Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister between 1988 and 1992. He consequently returned to the Treasury as Deputy Secretary of Public Finances from 1992 to 1993, becoming Second Permanent Secretary of Public Expenditure from 1993 to 1994. He was then appointed Permanent Secretary to the Department of the Environment, 1994 to 1997, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, 1997 to 1998, and HM Treasury, 1998 to 2002. He was Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service between 2002 and 2005.

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Lord Gus O'Donnell
2005 - 2012

Lord O'Donnell joined the Civil Service in 1979 as an economist in HM Treasury. He then served as First Secretary in the British Embassy in Washington DC from 1985 to 1988 when he then returned to HM Treasury as Senior Economic Advisor from 1988 until 1989. Between 1989 and 1990 he was Press Secretary to the Chancellor, Norman Lamont and the Prime Minister, John Major. He was Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service between 2005 and 2011 during the Premierships of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

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Sir Jeremy Heywood
2012 - Present Day

Sir Jeremy Heywood, KCB, CVO began his career in the Civil Service at the Treasury. He rose to occupy a range of senior roles, including Head of Securities and Markets Policy and Head of Corporate and Management Change. He also served as Principal Private Secretary to Chancellors Norman Lamont and Kenneth Clarke, before he was appointed Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister from 1999 to 2003. He then spent some time in the private sector as Managing Director and co-head of Morgan Stanley’s UK Investment Banking Division until 2007. Upon returning to the Civil Service, he was appointed Head of Domestic Policy and Strategy at the Cabinet Office, 2007 to 2008, then Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister from 2008 until 2012, when he became the current Cabinet Secretary.

 Download a transcript of the interview

About the project

The Cabinet Secretary is one of those uniquely British positions in government that exudes power. But how that power is exercised and with what result remain largely a mystery.

In this series of interviews Cabinet Secretaries past and present speak about life at the centre where the political leadership of the Cabinet and Prime Minister is translated into policy.

They will take you to the heart of things – to the right hand of the Prime Minister at the Cabinet table – which is where the Cabinet Secretary sits and records what is said and what is decided. Their notebooks are being progressively released through The National Archive. Here you will see the men who have wielded that pen.

The position of Cabinet Secretary is just under 100 years old. It was created by David Lloyd-George in December 1916 as a result of the tight government discipline needed to fight a world war.

Since then Britain has had 4 Sovereigns and 21 governments; but only 11 Cabinet Secretaries – 7 of whom have also been head of the home civil service.

So the Cabinet Secretary is a symbol of continuity. Maurice Hankey, the first to hold the position, did so for no less than 22 years, from 1916 to 1938. And 7 of the 11 cabinet secretaries served under more than one Prime Minister – often from different political parties. Conversely, Margaret Thatcher worked with three holders of the post, Tony Blair with four.

The Cabinet Secretaries you will see in these interviews cover the years 1979 to 2013 under Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. During this time the requirements of the job have varied and there is no fixed job description.

What is required of the Cabinet Secretary depends on the personality of the Prime Minister, their style of leadership, the strength of their political position and their personal political priorities.

At times some were dominant (Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher come to mind); some were consensual, such as John Major; some, like Tony Blair, had a strong personal position. Even so three of the eleven Cabinet Secretaries worked under coalition governments.

If the job has changed, so too has the environment in which government operates; with much higher expectations of openness, tight media scrutiny and generally a much stronger requirement for the Cabinet Secretary (and most permanent secretaries too) to have modern communications skills in a world of 24/7 news.

The Civil Service has lost its monopoly of policy advice. Parliamentary select committees require officials to give evidence in public. There are legions of lobbyists vying for ministerial attention. Some of the mystery surrounding government has gone but we still expect it always to be in control of events.

Henry Kissinger the American Secretary of State once said of Sir Burke Trend who was Cabinet Secretary from 1963 to 1973 that, ‘he made the cabinet ministers he served appear more competent than they could possibly be.’

That is both a tribute and a challenge. Now let’s hear what Sir Burke Trend’s successors have to say

Dr. Ian Beesley
Official Historian of the Cabinet Secretaries

The interviewers

Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield

Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University, London, and is a Fellow of the British Academy. Before joining Queen Mary in 1992, he was a journalist for twenty years with spells on The Times as a leader writer and Whitehall Correspondent, The Financial Times as its Lobby Correspondent at Westminster and The Economist. He was a regular presenter of the BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme from 1987 to 1992. In 1986 he was a co- founder of the Institute of Contemporary British History.

Among many other books, he is the author of Whitehall ('Much the best book on the British civil service ever to appear', Anthony King, Economist), Never Again: Britain 1945-1951 ('Written with the combination of scholarship and élan which makes Hennessy's work a joy to read', Roy Hattersley, Sunday Times) which in 1993 won the NCR Award for Non-Fiction and the Duff Cooper Prize, The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing The British Constitution ('Peter Hennessy has become the irreplaceable analyst of the inner core of the British system of government', Andrew Marr, Independent), Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties, Cabinets and the Bomb and The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945 - 2010. His latest book is Distilling the Frenzy, Writing the History Of One’s Own Times. He is conducting research with his co author Dr James Jinks, for a new book on the Royal Navy Submarine service: The Silent Deep: A History of the Royal Navy Submarine Service Since 1945, due for release by Penguin in early 2014.

Dr Anthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon is an authority on contemporary British history and has written extensively on Downing Street, including The Powers Behind the Prime Minister and Number 10 The Illustrated History. Anthony’s books and lectures include Public and Private Education: The Divide Must End (2001); Partnership not Paternalism (2002); An End to Factory Schools (2009); Why Schools? Why Universities? (Cass Lecture, 2010); and Why the Development of Good Character Matters More Than the Passing of Exams (Priestley Lecture, 2013).

He appears regularly on television and radio and in the press, and writes for several national newspapers and his views are regularly sought by the government and political parties. He founded, with Professor Peter Hennessy, the Institute of Contemporary British History, and the Action For Happiness with Lord Layard and Geoff Mulgan. He has worked at five schools: Whitgift School, Tonbridge School, St Dunstan’s College, Brighton College and Wellington College, where he became 13th Master in January 2006. He has two honorary doctorates and is Professor at the College of Teachers. He is also a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Society of Arts.

Supported by

Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street

The Mile End Group

The Mile End Group (MEG) is Queen Mary, University of London’s forum for government and politics.

Mile End Films

Mile End Films is a leading international creative production house, producing high-end corporate films, documentaries and dramas.

Queen Mary, Centre for Public Engagement

Queen Mary’s Centre for Public Engagement was set up in 2012 as part of a RCUK 'Catalyst' award, with the aim to embed and sustain public engagement within Queen Mary University.

Queen Mary, Innovation Fund

Queen Mary Innovation Limited is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Queen Mary, University of London which aims to enhance Queen Mary’s reputation as a leader in creative and innovative approaches to the commercialisation of research. The Innovation Fund aims to facilitate the acceleration of research along the pathway to impact or knowledge exchange. The Fund provides flexible support for a wide variety of projects from across QMUL, addressing the bottlenecks that often delay or prevent the successful translation of research for economic or social benefit.

Queen Mary, School of History

The School of History at Queen Mary is one of the largest, friendliest and most distinguished history departments in the capital, offering high quality research and teaching. The School has twenty-seven full-time academic staff, and a further twenty visiting, associated, or part-time research staff, with a range of interests covering medieval and renaissance history, modern and contemporary history, eighteenth-century studies, film history, and intellectual history, including the history of political thought.

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