Episode 12: Sir Humphrey says goodbye

Sir Humphrey and Me
3 min readApr 9, 2021

On a grey and still mid summer’s afternoon in 2019, I joined hundreds of civil servants and politicians milling solemnly outside Westminster Abbey ahead of the memorial service for the late Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, who died in October 2018 at the tragically young age of 56.

Quite how I’d secured an invitation, I wasn’t sure. Though I admired his leadership, I’d never worked with Jeremy personally. I can only assume I’d been logged on some random database in the Cabinet Office and my number had come in.[1]

Nevertheless, it was a huge privilege to be present at what was a deeply moving and much deserved commemoration of a man who ranks as one of if not the most important civil service leader of his generation. It was, palpably, a moment of history being made.

After taking my place at the back of the abbey, I recall the impressive sight of all five living former Prime Ministers, hyper-real to my eyes as they shuffled impatiently together at the entrance under the cathedral’s beautiful architraves, waiting for their cue to proceed.

As they stood there, it was striking to see how their movements and demeanours marked out many of the stereotypes and behavioural tics that had defined them in power.

Like old times, Gordon Brown loomed menacingly over Tony Blair’s shoulder seeking to engage him in earnest conversation while Blair smoothed his hand across his cheek, his weathered face etched with concentration and worry.

Behind them, Nick Clegg, still playing the effervescent, junior member of the gang, bounced around on alternate feet, slapping David Cameron chummily on the shoulder before sharing a joke with the former Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell: all three men laughed briefly at the gag, before realising where they were and settling into a more studied pose.

And then there was Theresa May, wraith-like, almost invisible in the background. Aloof and conscientious, she exchanged awkward niceties with the Dean as he prepared to begin the service.[2]

Lining the aisles ahead of them were thousands of civil servants and friends of Sir Jeremy[3], some dewy-eyed as the tributes began. To many of us present, it felt that we were not only mourning a great ambassador for the civil service, but the passing of a gentler era, now replaced by a much darker. It was a point not lost on Sir Gus O’Donnell, Sir Jeremy’s direct predecessor.

Emboldened by his own retirement which has left him free from the shackles of the civil servant’s restraint, Sir Gus peppered his own eulogy with thinly veiled barbs about the values that Sir Jeremy represented: the importance of candour and the ability to advise and influence ministers without fear or favour.

Then, after the Welsh singer Cerys Matthews finished proceedings with a low-key rendition of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right[4], the congregation trooped out, beginning first with the bigwigs, before the rest of us drones were released to daylight.

And there again, you saw a visual representation of the power networks of the politicians, mandarins and media tycoons who had gathered to gossip and hob-nob in the forecourt outside.

Matt Hancock milled side by side with the newly appointed Evening Standard editor George Osbourne, nibbling intrigues into his ear. The business secretary Greg Clark and future Chancellor Sajid Javid scrabbled behind, straining to hear.

Then, just as suddenly as they appeared, they scuttled back to their respective departments leaving the courtyard bare.

Notes:

[1] The 2010 Bribery Act expressly forbids civil servants from accepting gifts and hospitality offers from suppliers, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any perks on offer for Sir Humphrey. For some, the prize might be a free lunch at a Buckingham Palace reception or the chance to hobnob with high profile celebrities at a global conference. My golden ticket, it turned out, was an invitation to a funeral.

[2] In my opinion, Theresa May went on to give by far the best eulogy of all the bigwigs present that day: moving, thoughtful and devoid of ego.

[3] “His other family”, as his wife touchingly described us during her eulogy.

[4] It struck me at the time as being a strange choice for a funeral song, and one of the lyrics, “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind / You could’ve done better but I don’t mind”, particularly jarred: was this a characteristically sharp final message from Sir Jeremy to the political establishment?

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Sir Humphrey and Me

A former civil servant sharing light-hearted stories about life in the UK’s civil service