Episode 8: Sir Humphrey makes friends

Sir Humphrey and Me
7 min readFeb 12, 2021

For good or bad, many civil servants are in close personal contact with senior politicians from the earliest stages of their civil service career. This is often a great privilege, sometimes it’s a bit of a slog. Occasionally it can be downright unpleasant.

The great Muhammad Ali once said he always looked closely at how people treated waiters and serving staff because it gave him a sense of how they would treat him if circumstances were different. I think the same rule applies to civil servants.

As a result, I’ve always paid great attention to the way politicians treat their people, particularly the most junior members of the team. For me, it’s a mark of their human decency and an important test of their moral fitness to hold high office.

Some of them simply don’t get it, believing the best way to “drive” the civil service is to rant and rave. They don’t understand that, in these circumstances, most civil servants draw consolation from the fact that they have much better odds of survival than the transient beast making their life a misery.[1]

That’s not to say conflict isn’t important, or that raised voices shouldn’t be tolerated in the heat of the moment. Tough conversations are an essential part of negotiating difficult choices. Bust-ups and clashes will always happen. And sometimes, just sometimes, Sir Humphrey needs a bloody good rollicking.

But I think it’s only when politicians develop a mutually respectful, compassionate relationship with their civil servants that the latter can serve them at their best. Many of them — the best ones in my view — are masters at the art of making their people feel comfortable, safe and driven to do their best work.

I remember, for example, the first time I met Alan Johnson.

I was a very nervous and green speechwriter getting my first opportunity to write for the Secretary of State, a potential Prime Minister in waiting at the time. I’d been called into one of his policy meetings to bounce around ideas.

Even at the best of times, this is deeply intimidating stuff, especially for introverts[2] like me. These meetings quickly descend into a scrum of the Department’s big hitters crowded around a table in the minister’s office, barking great thoughts, competing to show their brilliance to The Man.

I was terrified, even to the point where I wasn’t sure where I should sit as the room filled up. At the main table with the bigwigs, now braying loudly to each other? Or on the cushioned window sill behind, all the easier to throw myself out of if things got desperate?

Perhaps sensing this, his Private Secretary kindly asked Alan at the start of the meeting if they could introduce me as the person who would be writing his speech on this occasion.

Though well-intentioned, this didn’t really help my blood pressure.

At the time, Alan had a well-established, brilliant speechwriter called Simon Lancaster, with whom he’d developed an immense personal rapport. I was a stand-in, a desperately poor substitute, because Simon and his equally stellar deputy were hard at work on bigger things for him that week. This was not going to end well.

I needn’t have worried. Alan stopped in his tracks, removing the glasses that were balanced delicately on his nose as he read some dismal report that a policy official had thrust in his hands. He fixed me with a warm smile and a mischievous glint in his eye, as if we were co-conspirators in an unfolding civil service farce.

“Ah, welcome!” he winked.

“I’m really looking forward to working with you on this.”

I doubt he’ll remember this moment, but it was a small act of kindness that I will never forget. Ditto his warmth and generosity after the speech, which eventually proceeded reasonably smoothly. With one small but significant glitch.

In my anxiety to impress, and having been told that Alan was a big fan of historical references, I’d decided to litter my prose with references to the Greek historian Thucydides. This went down extremely well in the various drafts I’d sent up to our very learned Secretary of State and he made only a few minor changes to the draft.

I was elated, and in my mind’s eye, I imagined Alan lounging in his study, the handle of his glasses nestled thoughtfully in his mouth, nodding sagely at my searing words. In hindsight, I suspect the reality was that he’d quickly recognised this wasn’t a very important speech and therefore didn’t need to give it his full attention.

A problem arose, however, when we discovered — at point of delivery — that Alan really, really, couldn’t pronounce Thucycides.

“THU-SIDE-EES … THU-SID-ASS … THUS-EE-DEES,” he spluttered, cursing under his breath and creating unintentional hilarity among the assembled audience for vast sections of the speech. Eventually he spat, gobbled and choked his way through the rest of the script and wandered off stage, looking mildly dazed.

It was a rooky error for a professional speechwriter to make, but Alan took it in his stride, and it’s a mark of the great man’s character that he promptly asked his private office to pass on a personal note of thanks, saying that he felt it had gone “very well”.

(Bless you Alan, but you are terrible liar.)

Another senior politician with a more patchy reputation with the British public — unfairly, I think, as I found him unfailingly polite and considerate in his dealings with officials, and possessing of a hugely impressive intellect too — was Jeremy Hunt.

He was again someone who made the point of relaying encouraging messages via his Private Office team, who always transcribed his scrawls literally in the e-mails I received, including diligently capturing any capitalisations or exclamation marks.

So I would get urgent, breathless messages fired into my inbox like “The Secretary of State thinks this is EXCELLENT STUFF (underlined)”, or “The Secretary of State believes this is VERY POWERFUL & EFFECTIVE ANALYSIS, WELL DONE!!!!”

When I opened the attachment, I’d find that dear old Jeremy had actually rewritten the entire speech, always making it about 100 times better than the original. But the thought was there.

Another big fan of Jeremy was the veteran broadcaster John Humphrys. Departmental press officers would regale me with stories of how Jeremy and John would play footsie together before their Today programme interviews: the Welshman purring about the brilliance of the latter’s latest political intervention and Jeremy casting back in his chair, simpering.

Then, the red light would flick on, Humphrys would wipe the flecks of foam from his lips and begin tearing into Jezza, who would be poised statuesque - bulbous eyes alert, his sharp cheekbone ready to deflect the next attack.

Some of the ministers I’ve worked with enjoyed socialising with their teams to build rapport.

People like Jim Knight the witty and mischievous former Schools Minister, or Phil Hope the energetic Care Minister, who worked through gruelling cancer treatment at Education before falling foul of the expenses scandal in 2009, would regularly host curry nights or drinks at the waterfront bar on the House of Commons terrace.

Andy Burnham too, with his passion for football, would occasionally be seen at kick-abouts with his private office staff[3], while one minister staged a memorable cricket match in the office with a rolled-up sock and a bat during one of England’s World Cup matches.

Again, these are little gestures that these very busy and important people frankly didn’t have to make.

Some will be appalled, saying that they’re frivolous, an extravagant waste of time given the more pressing matters of state these men and women had to attend to.

But they were hugely appreciated by us, and I’m 100% sure they helped their civil servants to feel more connected and motivated to deliver.

Notes:

[1] The Civil Service Code aside, this is the closest thing that the civil service has to a creed: transeundum omnia. Everything passes in time.

[2] I could bore for Britain on the subject of why the civil service isn’t the most conducive environment for introverts. Too many decisions are made by committees or steering groups in which the loudest, most assertive voices cut through. I feel a lot of ministers and senior civil servants need to read Susan Cain’s excellent Quiet and reflect on what they might do differently to ensure that all their staff have a chance to contribute, not just the loudmouths and blowhards.

[3] Andy was also responsible for one of the funniest, most tender leaving speeches I’ve ever heard when he hosted a private drinks reception for the renowned surgeon and peer Lord Ara Darzi in his office. Thanking the great medic for his extraordinary work in transforming NHS services, he noted that his professional expertise as a colorectal specialist gave him a unique ability to deal with the many arseholes loitering around the political sphere.

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Sir Humphrey and Me

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