The company he keeps

C.H. Sisson

  • Experiences of an Optimist by John Redcliffe-Maud
    Hamish Hamilton, 199 pp, £10.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 241 10569 2

Is it a wise or a foolish man who, after more than seventy years in this hard world, comes before it as an optimist? The handsome head of John Redcliffe-Maud, alias Sir John Maud, GCB, CBE and what else, alias Baron of the City and County of Bristol, looks from the dust-cover with a questioning half-smile. In his Bath robes? Not a bath-robe, anyway, though it would need more than a head-and-shoulders portrait – or closer acquaintance with the official wear of knights and peers – to determine the question with precision. A handsome face, a noble bearing. A fine specimen, without a doubt, of the secondary public man of his epoch – of the race of heads of (the right) colleges, Permanent Secretaries, chairmen of Royal Commissions and the like, who live just below the surface of public events and pop up from time to time to give them momentarily an appearance of old-world respectability.

These are the men who soften blows and hold things together – or rather, they are the most eminent of them, for had the class not been a relatively large one, the process of disintegration would certainly have been more rapid and more painful than it has been. Lord Redcliffe-Maud possesses, in an outstanding degree, the qualities necessary for success in this field and his success has indeed been such as might well induce a certain optimism, even in a more cynical character. Cynicism is not one of Lord Redcliffe-Maud’s strong points: it is indeed one for which one could not give him more than a gamma marking, as compared with other members of his class, but this defect has perhaps made him more rather than less suitable for public display. For Lord Redcliffe-Maud is, indubitably, a nice man, he would not hurt a fly or, if he did, it would be clear to everybody that it was for the best of motives.

Lest I should be thought to be claiming to draw a portrait from the live model, instead of merely giving an informed opinion, such as Lord Redcliffe-Maud has himself given on so many subjects, perhaps I should say that I set eyes on him only once. This was in 1950 when – as Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education – he gave an address on the beauties, and you might say the sacredness, of bureaucracy. He spoke less as a Permanent Secretary – they are a fairly hard-bitten race, in my experience – than as one of that dangerous class of persons, the Prominent Layman, and true to form told how bureaucrats could use their ‘creative imaginations’ to make a ‘specifically Christian contribution’ to what might seem to be the most dubious enterprises. I went on record at the time to suggest that there seemed to be some confusion between the Divine Will and the policy of His (then) Majesty’s Government. Perhaps there was. Certainly reading Experiences of an Optimist has not entirely reassured me, but the revival of this memory of thirty years ago disposes of the possibility that the volume might be a product merely of the euphoria of old age.

Lord Redcliffe-Maud’s own account of the book is that ‘it is a volume of memoirs rather than autobiography,’ and he presents himself as ‘the peg on which are hung the few bits of contemporary history’ that he knew at first hand and ‘can remember’. There are no indiscretions, public or private, for this is the man who, when taking part in BBC Brains Trusts, never gave an answer which made trouble for himself or his Minister. A honeyed tongue! Before accepting a BBC invitation, he tells us, ‘I always asked my Minister’s advice. In fact none of my Ministers,’ he goes on, ‘whether man or woman, Socialist or Tory, wanted me to say no; they thought it useful that their chief adviser should sometimes expose himself as a human being whose mind and lips were not permanently sealed.’ Especially useful, no doubt, because neither the lips nor the mind were too wide open, either. Maud was so much in the game that he seems to have been unaware – to be unaware even now – of his role as a man who would expose only the innocence of ministerial intentions and the high virtue of the milieu. From such a man one can expect no more than conventional portraits of those with whom his varied career brought him into contact. He is no Saint-Simon, even of the smallest size; he shows no sign of entering incisively into the motives of those he observes, any more than into his own. And since the ‘few bits of contemporary history’ he ‘knew at first hand’ are treated in so personal a vein, there is no hope of much enlightenment here as to their nature and consequences. The value of this book, such as it is, is rather as an account of a career, exemplifying brilliantly one type of operator – and that by no means the worst – in the last fifty years of public life in this country.

John Primatt Redcliffe-Maud was born in Bristol in 1906, the sixth and youngest child of the then vicar of St Mary Redcliffe, the great church in which Chatterton pretended to have discovered his forgeries, in the days before the arts had ‘grown in popularity’ and ‘our creative artists’ had ‘transformed our reputation in the world’, as the author tells has happened in his lifetime. From Summerfields, his first school, he won a scholarship to Eton, at the normal age of 13, after the ‘appalling’ disappointment of not having succeeded at the age of 12. At Eton ‘revolutionary ideas’ were in the air. ‘Privilege of any kind was frowned upon.’ (Not quite any kind, perhaps?) In the turn of time he was elected to Pop, that famous centre of egalitarianism for which the ‘fount of honour’ was the existing membership. In October 1924 he went up to Oxford, with a leaving scholarship from Eton and an open scholarship at New College. Something of the temper of his life as an undergraduate can be gathered from his comment that not all his ‘Christian colleagues in the SCM can have thought acting in [the OUDS] Smoker something their President should do’, and one (‘only one,’ he says rather oddly) ‘lost his faith as a direct result of seeing’ that great young man’s performance. After four years of undergraduate life at Oxford, he had to think of a career. After a year at Harvard, he put himself into the hands of one of those London institutions ‘long dedicated to coaching Civil Service candidates’, where his new tutors, he says, shared his own pessimism about the outcome. This was not put to the test, for at the critical moment University College, Oxford had to find a junior research fellow who could act as dean, there being an absolute shortage of unmarried fellows living in college. Who more suitable than young Maud? The name had only to be mentioned to David Lindsay Keir and the job was done. Politics was to be his subject, it seems suddenly to have been decided. ‘But why politics?’ Why indeed? Anyhow, G.D.H. Cole put him on to the subject of local government; the Home University Library wanted a book on it and Maud’s situation gave him the contract.

So began the working life of one who was to deplore (‘now deeply,’ he says in this book) the fact that all the friends of his boyhood went like himself to independent schools and that he ‘grew up for 18 years knowing nothing of the great majority’ of his contemporaries ‘who went to maintained schools’. An optimist can find consolation everywhere, however, and while he went to Eton, Oxford and Harvard ‘only because’ he won scholarships, now he can look out on a world where ‘every boy and girl in Britain can go to a secondary school ... and to a university – if they wish to go and are thought capable of staying the course.’ Maud’s pupils in politics included Stephen Spender – who does not seem to have learnt much politics anyway – and if it is not breath-taking, it does at least cause one to reflect on the insularity of the pre-war Oxford school of politics that it was only in 1938 that he ‘spotted’ the ‘need for rearmament if Hitler and Mussolini were to be stopped’. He shared the enthusiasm of his father, by then Bishop of Kensington – an enthusiasm shared by how many more besides! – for ‘what the League of Nations stood for’, and seems to have regarded that as some sort of substitute for more substantial protection. He was in good company, and it is not too much to say that his genius, all his life, has been for being in good company rather than for actually being right. Perhaps those are harsh words, but certainly 1938 was a little late for news of Hitler to have reached one of the country’s principal centres of instruction. Had he read Mein Kampf? Did he know anything about French politics? Not his subject, perhaps.

It was the war, anyhow, which finally launched Maud on his great career. By this time he was Master of Birkbeck College; it was William Beveridge, then Master of University College, Oxford, who contrived to get him to the Ministry of Food as a temporary principal, though admittedly no great contrivance was needed, in those days, to find a place in Whitehall for one who had the credentials of an Oxford don. For Maud this was the beginning of twenty years with ‘delightful’ and ‘highly intelligent’ people, among whom he was rapidly propelled to various senior positions in the Ministry of Food and the Reconstruction Office. The fact that his first assignment was in a ‘general’ division with wide and loosely-defined responsibilities, and not in one of the many concerned with the actual supply of meat, bacon or what-not, must have had something to do with this fast start; the fact that he was, as he says, ‘ambitious’ will have provided valuable motive power: but the determining factor was the favour of Lord Woolton. In 1945, when Maud became Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, the immediate propellor was perhaps Morrison, whom he had met in Oxford and served in the Lord President’s office. He had, in six years in the Civil Service, given ample evidence of his ability to survive. The world being what it is, and Whitehall being what it is, it cannot all have been done by ‘a life that has a depth and breadth and quality which transcend dimensions either of time or space’. Maud was very much the sort of man the Civil Service wanted – by background and by temperament.

If he had a weakness, it must have been the delusion that he was doing good. Civil servants are, very properly, paid to do what has to be done, which is something different. One has some sympathy with those of Maud’s colleagues who thought, he tells us, that the Arts Council took too much of his time, and Unesco ‘far too much’, the more since there is nothing in this book to suggest that he had even a glimmering of foresight as to the political meaning of these organisations. Indeed, the overwhelming impression one gets is of a man who had no more sense of the direction in which society was changing than, as a teacher of politics before the war, he had had of the significance of Nazism. A certain discretion, in relation to the cant of the moment, is a prerequisite in a civil servant. Actually to believe it all, as Maud appears to have done, is surely going a bit far, however widely acceptable it may make one. The sense that there was never anything actually wrong about Maud’s reactions, in the situations in which he found himself, is profoundly disquieting. Did he not sometimes think an unsuitable thought? Not even when George Tomlinson was, as he records, ‘trying to persuade an official deputation from the Soviet Union who visited the Ministry’ that the Ministry did not prescribe syllabuses. ‘ “No,” said George, “we believe in making teachers earn their pay. What they teach is their business, not mine.” ’ George Tomlinson was a man of great charm, more likely to see the work of his department in terms of social comfort than of what used to be meant by education, and no doubt it was fortunate that he did not regard teaching as his business. Still, this little interview leaves many reverberations in the mind of the reader. How little, one cannot but reflect, it left in the mind of the author.

In 1952 Maud was moved to the Ministry of Power, an assignment perhaps less full of temptations for a man who was apt to indulge his taste for elevating tasks. Offered little opportunity for preachments by the subject-matter of his six years’ work, Lord Redcliffe-Maud finishes his chapter with a piece of verbosity about ‘openness and confidentiality in democratic government’, ‘realistic answers’ and ‘changing problems’, in which no thought can be found. It must have been a problem for those concerned to know what to do with a man who had been promoted to Permanent Secretary at the age of 39, had behind him 13 years in that rank, and was still some seven years from a date when he could decently be retired. So high marks go to whoever pushed him off to South Africa as High Commissioner and in due course Ambassador. The idea was perhaps suggested by his honeymoon visit to Africa more than a quarter of a century earlier. Moreover, here was a situation in which a high-minded man would look well. And so it was that when Macmillan toured Africa in 1960 and made his famous wind of change speech, our man in Cape Town had a suitably incorruptible look. One phrase of Macmillan’s speech is so in keeping with the tone of these memoirs that the reader may find himself attaching a certain significance to it in relation to the High Commissioner’s biography: a ‘society in which individual merit and individual merit alone is the criterion for a man’s advancement whether political or economic’. Fine words! Summerfields, Eton, Oxford, Whitehall, with friends at every stage to help at the right moment: lucky, one may think, that this social ideal had not been realised in our own country when John Primatt was on his way.

What more suitable conclusion, to such a career, than the mastership of an Oxford college? Given the style in which the taxpayers of the world are accustomed to keep their diplomatic services – one supposes, in order to protect them from knowledge of the world – the Master’s Lodgings at Univ. could be no more than an appropriate refuge. And indeed Lord Redcliffe-Maud is not ungrateful. He had come home and was well placed to know that ‘headship of an Oxford college must have been, nearly always, one of the most enviable forms of life.’ It is hard to imagine anyone better-equipped to fill such an office with grace, with all the little liberalisms and concessions to modern manners which the defence of such privilege now demands. The chapter devoted to the years 1963-1976 is a recital of exercises in this tact, accompanied by a cooing over the improved intellectual standard of undergraduates and the accessibility of the pastures of Oxford to children from comprehensive schools. On this last delicate matter – as on how many encountered in his long career? – Lord Redcliffe-Maud admits ‘we still have a long way to go.’ But the point about this incomparable operator is that he is always on the right course: ‘we have made progress,’ and of course ‘meanwhile, we could not take more trouble to be fair.’

There is a chapter on ‘Local Government, 1929-79’ which recounts the progress of the young don who wrote the book for the Home University Library to the chairman of the Royal Commission. It would be unjust to hold Lord Redcliffe-Maud responsible for all the confusions that followed, for politicians competed hotly to make a mess of it, as is now generally recognised. One wonders, however, whether for once his tact did not desert him when he chose to elaborate his title by a reference to ‘the City and County of Bristol’, which now survives only in that title, and there only until this eminent public servant is gathered to whatever fields await such a man.

With what company? One cannot say, but that someone will already have put in a word for him must be as certain as anything in these grave matters. As regards himself, Maud’s optimism in this world has been justified. What one finds harder to share is his optimism in relation to the world at large. ‘Some things have hugely improved’ since he was born, yes. But when one comes to some of his examples one cannot but feel that his euphoria should have been more tempered. ‘Take education.’ Well, take education. Or, ‘I believe that Britain’s greatness has actually increased.’ Whatever may be meant by that dubious expression, has the progress been absolutely linear? ‘We reached a new height of excellence in the art of government.’ The art of what? Even (I quote) ‘in collaboration with ... the Soviet Union’. (Think nothing of those superficial troubles you sometimes read about in the papers.) ‘I believe that the distinction we so often tend to make between the secular and the concern of Christians, between the pagan and the holy, is fundamentally bogus.’ Maybe; it may very well be. But it can hardly be said that the distinction is made often enough to constitute a real barrier to progress in our time. Nor that there is not a prospect that in the future many lives will be nastier, more brutish and shorter than that of John Primatt Redcliffe-Maud.