Select Committee on Public Administration Written Evidence

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 which reads:

    "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 Merlyn Rees."

  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 individuals—John Fretwell, Michael Palliser and Michael Butler—on 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 Michael Palliser.

  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 be omitted.

  In the chapter headed "Foreign Secretary—The 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 Committee—EQ—on 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 ". . . Oval Office".

  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 Secretary—1977", 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 Secretary—1978", 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 letter.

  In the chapter entitled "Foreign Secretary—l979" 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 advice".

  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

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