Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Yes, Minister, thanks to Hunt

Lord Hunt of Tanworth has just died. Lord who? Tam Dalyell starts his obituary of Lord Hunt for The Independent by remarking that, alas, people often lodge in the public mind and are remembered by posterity on account of comparatively minor episodes in the course of their otherwise long and distinguished lives in public service. For Lord Hunt, a Cabinet Secretary, the episode concerned his attempt to stop the publication of Richard Crossman’s diaries. If he had been more successful (which might have been the case if he'd been less rigid a negotiator), there might have been no Yes, Minister.

John Hunt was born in 1919, and after serving in the Royal Navy joined the civil service in 1946. In 1973, he was appointed Cabinet Secretary by Edward Heath, but then served under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan before retiring in 1979. According to The Daily Telegraph obituary he was ‘percipient, considerate and businesslike’ and his ‘self-confidence and zest for a workload were a by-word among his Civil Service colleagues’. After retiring, he worked for various businesses, including Prudential Corporation and Banque National de Paris, and headed various official committees, such as one looking into cable television and another on European Union issues. He was made a life peer in 1980. He died last week, on 17 July.

Richard Crossman, who died over 20 years ago in 1974, was a prominent left-wing intellectual, an MP for nearly 30 years, and a writer/editor for the New Statesman. From 1964 until 1970, he served in Harold Wilson’s cabinet, and his diaries of that time were posthumously published. Today, those diaries are much celebrated for being the first to reveal the inner workings of government, and, slightly less intellectually, for being a key source of one of the BBC’s most-loved comedy series - Yes, Minister.

But if Hunt had had his way there would have been no Yes, Minister. In 1974, after the election of a Labour government under Harold Wilson, Crossman’s diaries were sent to No 10 and passed to Hunt for clearance. But Hunt objected to their publication because of detailed references to cabinet meetings. Nevertheless, in January 1975 the first extracts of the book were published in The Sunday Times without Hunt’s consent. The Attorney General immediately sought an injunction to prevent publication of the book or extracts from it on the grounds that cabinet proceedings were confidential.

An informative House of Commons report in 2006 on the publication of political memoirs looks back at the Crossman affair. It recalls that the court did in fact uphold the principle that there was an obligation of confidentiality imposed on a cabinet minister in the public interest of collective responsibility. However, it also found that there was a time limit on this obligation. As ten years had passed between the events described and publication of the Crossman diaries, it was judged that the book would not undermine cabinet confidentiality. The report also notes, however, that no injunction was sought against the latter volumes of the text, even though they were published less than ten years after the events they described.

Interestingly, Dalyell in his obituary, remembers Graham Greene, then managing director of Jonathan Cape, publishers of the diaries, telling him that if John Hunt had not been so rigid he would have been prepared to make cuts in the diaries. Hunt was so difficult, so uncompromising, the obituary says, that Jonathan Cape decided to publish without alteration. Dalyell also writes about how, years later Hunt had told him that he himself had been ‘agog to read Crossman’s diaries’.

Here are a couple of snippets from Crossman’s diaries. This one is from his introduction (as reproduced in the House of Common’s report): ‘Memory is a terrible improver - even with a diary to check the tendency. And it is this which makes a politician’s autobiography (even when he claims his rights and uses official Cabinet papers) so wildly unreliable . . . If I could publish a diary of my years as a minister without any editorial improvements, I would have done something towards lightening up the secret places of British politics and enabling any intelligent elector to have a picture of what went on behind the scenes between 1964 and 1970.’

And thanks to the BBC for this one which provides the genesis of a now-famous catch phrase: ‘In a way it is just the same as I had expected and predicted. The room in which I sit is the same in which I saw Nye Bevan for almost the first time when he was Minister of Health and already I realize the tremendous effort it requires not to be taken over by the Civil Service. My Minister's room is like a padded cell, and in certain ways I am like a person who is suddenly certified a lunatic and put safely into this great, vast room, cut off from real life and surrounded by male and female trained nurses and attendants. When I am in a good mood they occasionally allow an ordinary human being to come and visit me; but they make sure that I behave right, and that the other person behaves right; and they know how to handle me. Of course, they don't behave quite like nurses because the Civil Service is profoundly deferential, ‘Yes, Minister! If you wish it, Minister!’ ’

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