Letter to Rt Hon Dr David Owen MP from
Sir Robin Butler KCB CVO, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of
the Home Civil Service
Many thanks for forwarding the remaining chapters
of your memoirs and for your letter of 24 May responding to the
suggestions I made on the earlier part of your book. I can understand
why, seen from your position, the 15 year guideline now looks
excessive. But in principles of general application I think that
you would agree that there must be some time limit and for members
of the present Government of whom some are still in office after
12 years and therefore vulnerable to political embarrassment,
15 years does not appear to me to be too long a deadline.
Turning to the chapters of your book, I have
no comments on the chapter about your time as Navy Minister, which
is outside the 15 year period. But I have to ask you, on strong
national security grounds, to delete the paragraphs starting at
"Denis Healey" on line 7 of page 12 and going to line
15 on page 13: this can be done without damage to the account.
[***] The reason for omitting the passage about command and control
procedure for Polaris is that knowledge of these arrangements
is highly secret for the obvious reason that, in the event of
impending hostilities, a potential enemy would have a clue about
the essential decision-takers on nuclear release and therefore
whom it would be advantageous to eliminate. Similarly, the chapter
on your time as Minister of Health is outside the 15 year period;
but you might like to consider omitting the reference to Sir Philip
Rogers on page 6, particularly since not much turns on it. If
you decide to keep this in, the present Permanent Secretary of
the Department of Health, Sir Christopher France, would like to
warn Sir Philip Rogers.
On page 20 of that chapter, there is a passage
"There are many murky rumours surrounding
Wilson's surprising resignation in l976. Some of them were perhaps
fed by the same people involved in misinformation and denigration
that did undoubtedly stem from MI5 in the early 1970s in relation
to Northern Ireland. I was also named in this campaign as was
No evidence has been ever found to link MI5
to such denigration, and in my view it is much more likely that
it came from the IRA. But if you want to keep this reference in,
I suggest that you make clear that it is your belief rather than
your knowledge and that you refer to the security authorities,
since MI5 was not the only Service operating in Northern Ireland
in that period.
The chapter on The Foreign Office does fall
within the 15 year period, and you may want to reconsider the
references to named individualsJohn Fretwell, Michael Palliser
and Michael Butleron page 2. I do not ask you to remove
the general point, and I think that these references to specific
names could be removed without destroying the general point. Similarly,
while I do not want to press you to remove the tribute to Sir
Donald Maitland on pages 2 and 3, it could be made without the
reference in the first line of the last paragraph on page 3 to
On page 9 of that chapter, there is a description
of the attitudes of named people in the Cabinet to the Government's
position in the IMF discussions which I would prefer to see omitted;
but I acknowledge that the 15 year deadline only just applies
to it and much of what is said there has been made public already.
The same cannot be said, however, for the description in pages
13 and 14 of that chapter of the advice which you received on
Rhodesia from Ivor Richard, Ted Rowlands and Sir Antony Duff;
and you might like to consider whether these references should
In the chapter headed "Foreign SecretaryThe
First 32 Days", you say about [***], and I think that this
comment might be omitted. A strict interpretation of Radcliffe
would involve removing other references to personalities (including
Stephen Wall, now in No 10), but, since they are so kind, I do
not feel that need to press you on this, The same goes for the
references to Junior Ministers on pages 14-17 (although I would
prefer that you omitted the reference to the European Cabinet
CommitteeEQon page 15).
On pages 25 and 26 of that chapter, there is
a description of a Cabinet meeting about direct elections, in
which you attribute views to a number of people, including Michael
Foot, Tony Benn and Merlyn Rees. Conformity with the Radcliffe
principles would involve removing these personal references.
I would be particularly grateful if you would
remove the references to Nico Henderson on pages 27 to 29. Sir
Patrick Wright and I are having a good deal of trouble at present
in restraining him from publishing a diary containing observations
made of Ministers and others behind closed doors, which Sir Patrick
and I think that it would be entirely inappropriate for a former
official to publish in contravention of the Radcliffe rules; and
your own to Nico himself would make that task much more difficult.
On page 37 of that chapter, I realise that you
will have to make some reference to Jim Callaghan's view of Peter
Ramsbotham in order to explain the subsequent appointment of Peter
Jay, but this passage could be made a little gentler by leaving
out the sentence beginning "I asked one person close to Jim
. . .".
On page 38, I must ask you to leave out the
reference to the nuclear consultation agreements, for the reason
implied by the description "very secret" in the text.
The Americans would be very surprised to see this sentence. I
suggest that nothing would be lost if you ended at ". . .
On page 48 of this chapter, it would accord
with the Radcliffe principles if you were to avoid attributing
views to other members of the Cabinet by name in discussion about
the Lib-Lab Pact. I should also be grateful if you would avoid
giving the voting numbers.
In the chapter headed "Foreign Secretary1977",
it would be preferable if you could tell the story of the announcement
of Peter Jay's appointment without the explicit criticism of [***].
On pages 17 and 22 of that chapter you give
an account of a Cabinet discussion with attribution to named people.
Even though this is done by quoting from Tony Benn's diaries,
it would be preferable to avoid the named attributions.
In the chapter "Foreign Secretary1978",
on page 17, it would be better if you avoided attributing the
advice on joining the EMS but not the ERM by name to Michael Butler.
On page 24, there is the personal attribution
of Ministerial views on Chevaline to which I referred in my previous
In the chapter entitled "Foreign Secretaryl979"
the final paragraph on page 5 both describes the advice given
to you by the Governor of Hong Kong on the police corruption case
and your own scepticism about the advice. I suggest that you delete
the two sentences from "I was very dubious . . . ignore his
I hope that these suggestions are helpful. I
think that they can all be accommodated with only minor amendments
to the text and without damage to the general structure or themes.
I hope that you will feel able to make amendments in the sense
which I have suggested.
6 June 1991