The Private Office Revisited
Nicholas Henderson
London: Profile Books, 2001.
£14.99, xvii-206 pages, ISBN 1861975007.

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

In Sir Nicholas Henderson’s title, specialists of the subject will recognize that of an earlier volume, The Private Office: A personal View of five Foreign Secretaries and of Government from the Inside (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984), and indeed the book under review is the updated version of the 1984 edition, with the unchanged main text, a re-written Preface (now called Prologue) and a new Epilogue which takes us to Jack Straw’s period.

The unusually long new subtitle of the book, A personal account of life in the Private Office Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs, and an inside view of that office and of subsequent Ministers seen in recent times, is in itself an indication of its complex structure. We have in fact three constantly overlapping narratives: the author’s personal recollections of his time at the Foreign Office from the political and diplomatic point of view, his description of the functioning of the Private Office of that ministry (the ‘technical’ aspect), and a succession of historical anecdotes on the various Foreign Secretaries, some to do with ‘high politics’, some trivial – but entertaining. Traditional academics will no doubt be put off by this mix, which ‘serious’ scholarship does not accept, but the ‘educated reader’, as the phrase goes, can find in it an extremely enjoyable way of being introduced to the arcane world of the inner sanctum of the Foreign Office.

On one plane, the traditional canons of academic criticism cannot apply, since the scholar’s practice of comparing various sources is defeated when the author recounts R.A. Butler’s indiscretions when he was alone with him. One obviously has to take Henderson’s report at face value, since no third party can confirm or infirm what he tells us Butler said, and Butler cannot contradict him from beyond the grave. This does not mean that these passages (others mainly concern Ernest Bevin) are without value: they add to what we already know about these politicians, and as they are obviously ‘in character’, their reliability seems high even though there is no hard-and-fast supporting evidence. In fact the whole genre depends on a complicity between author and reader. In such books the author says ‘take my word for it’ and the readers are generally well-meaning people who bought the book in the first place because they had some empathy with the writer and felt confident that what he had to say about the lighter side of politics, diplomacy, etc. would be both informative and entertaining. If one accepts this convention about the author’s bona fides, this aspect of The Private Office revisited is a success, as we have an abundance of insights into the private facets of great Foreign Secretaries like Bevin and Butler.

Likewise, it is very difficult to take a critical distance over the technical functioning of the Private Office. As Henderson indicates in his Prologue, very little has been written about the subject – indeed he offers this as one of the motivations for writing the book. Once again, therefore, one has to take what he says at face value, especially when he discusses the Potsdam Conference and the Bevin years, since most protagonists are now dead and cannot therefore contradict him. The ‘educated’ public will no doubt be fascinated by this little-known office which works in such an unobtrusive way and yet can influence policy so strongly – or perhaps one should speak in the past tense, since Henderson clearly believes that his description is probably no longer valid, first because ‘the décor of the Private Secretaries’ room has changed and is no longer as shabby and stale as the stage-set of Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap’ (Epilogue), but above all because of the increasing influence of ‘special advisers’ not drawn from the Civil Service, but from the world of politics.

Finally, though Henderson is probably not aware of it, the book in fact tells us much more about him than anything or anybody else – this is in the nature of memoirs: what we have is not a first-degree reality, but a second-degree ‘reality’, reality as interpreted and consciously or unconsciously filtered by Henderson and recaptured in his volume. Though his affectionate loyalty to Bevin and Butler is in no doubt, it is equally clear that his favourite boss was Michael Stewart (Foreign Secretary, 1965-66 and 1968-70 – we learn that in the extremely useful appendix which lists all Foreign Secretaries from Eden, 1940-45 to Straw, 2001-present), the ‘Unsung Foreign Secretary’ as he calls him in the title of Chapter 8. Henderson only served under him for a few months in 1965, but it is obvious that they left a deep mark on him. With diplomatic diffidence, Henderson indirectly suggests where his preferences go: ‘Whilst avoiding the temptation to place the Foreign Secretaries I have known in some order of attainment, I cannot refrain from saying that I think Michael Stewart is one of the most underestimated, the result partly of his unassuming personality’. Most politicians today, he concludes in the Epilogue, are held in ‘widespread contempt’ because of their ‘evident vanity and personal ambition’ – but we are given to understand that British politics would have taken a totally different turn if in the hands of people like Michael Stewart. The book therefore offers more than a description of the Private Office – a reflection on the evolution of the political world since 1945, and here Henderson is no longer a chronicler, but becomes a moralist, who tells us far more on his own conception of political ethics than on the day-to-day functioning of Whitehall as seen by an ‘insider’. This ‘second-degree’ dimension of the book will be appreciated by readers interested in the ‘old school’ conception of the British political decision-making process as expounded by a proficient practitioner born in 1919 and trained in the tradition of the wartime and immediate post-war Civil Service.

According once again to a proud tradition which seems to be losing ground every day, the book has benefited from exceptionally careful proof-reading (no doubt by the author himself), as not a single misprint has been detected – a very rare occurrence these days, which must of course be applauded by appreciative reviewers and readers.