Geoffrey Cass

Statistician and civil servant


Edward Geoffrey Cass, civil servant: born London 10 September 1916; Lecturer in Economics, New College, Oxford 1939-40; Private Secretary to the Prime Minister 1949-52; OBE 1951; Chief Statistician, Ministry of Supply 1952-54; Private Secretary to the Minister of Supply 1954-58; Assistant Secretary, Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence 1959-65; Assistant Under-Secretary of State (Programmes and Budget), Ministry of Defence 1965-72, Deputy Under-Secretary of State (Finance and Budget) 1972-76; CB 1974; Chairman, Verbatim Reporting Study Group 1977-79; Alternate Governor, Reserve Bank of Rhodesia 1978-79; married 1941 Ruth Powley (four daughters); died London 30 May 2006.

Geoffrey Cass, economist, civil servant and one-time Private Secretary to Attlee and Churchill, was one of the cleverest men of his generation.

Born in Charlton, south London, in the middle of the First World War to two LCC head teachers, he won, despite a sickly childhood, a scholarship to St Olave's by Tower Bridge. From there another scholarship took him to University College London, where he obtained in two years a First in Economics (and met his future wife, Ruth Powley), and another again to Queen's College, Oxford, getting, in 1938, the top First in PPE and winning the coveted George Webb Medley Scholarship, which Harold Wilson had won the year before.

He joined Wilson at New College as a Lecturer in Economics and shared a desk with him. Wilson thought Cass the brightest statistical economist he had ever met. Cass returned the compliment. He also supplemented his income by coaching the young Ted Heath, an organ scholar at Balliol and President of the Oxford Union, who was struggling towards Finals.

When war came in 1939 Cass offered himself to the Services but his record of ill-health meant that no service would take him and he was posted to the Ministry of Supply. At one time he had the vital job of allocating steel and brought home to Ruth, his wife, an early Morphy Richards electric iron, unknown to the British housewife at the time. As Ruth drooled over this precious object, which she saw replacing her old flat iron on the stove, Geoffrey dashed her hopes - "They're not going to bribe me - I'm sending it back tomorrow - but I thought you'd like to see it."

By the end of the Second World War Cass had also served in the Air Ministry and the Treasury and been appointed Assistant Statistician at Supply with the rank of Temporary Principal. But he was just too young to be one of the 50 post-war direct-entry Principals. He had to take the "reconstruction" exam at Stoke D'Abernon and endure the grilling interview at Burlington House (the Civil Service Commission not yet banished to Basingstoke). Out of several hundred applicants he came second and was posted back to the then unfashionable Ministry of Supply.

But, groomed for stardom, he did not have to wait long for promotion back to Principal and in 1949 was appointed an Assistant Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Cass had obviously known Attlee from Oxford as the Bodleian holds among the Attlee archives "Correspondence with Geoffrey Cass 1946-51".

The Attlees and the Casses got on well together. Ruth Cass fondly remembers the annual Christmas party at Chequers and how one of the girls (three already, with another on the way) had to be induced to leave by Clem's presenting her with a special bag of rationed sweets. The arrival of the fourth daughter, Harriet (now in her 33rd year with the BBC as an announcer), was greeted by Mrs Attlee with a superb bunch of chrysanthemums. When Attlee lost the 1951 election he wrote specially to the Ministry of Supply to say what an outstanding chap Cass was. He was appointed OBE in the Resignation Honours.

With Winston Churchill back as Prime Minister Cass had almost completed the customary three years as a Private Secretary in No 10. But he stayed on a few months to help the transition. Churchill, who by this time was 79 and not very good with names, always referred to Cass, though without malice or suspicion, as "one of Attlee's men". And although Churchill made strenuous efforts to recreate his wartime Private Office - recalling Jock Colville from Lisbon, though having to concede that Leslie Rowan was out of reach at the Treasury - it is interesting to note that his establishment of two Principal Private Secretaries, three Assistant Private Secretaries, one Secretary for ecclesiastical appointments and one Press Officer compares with 34 Chiefs of Staff, Private Secretaries, Press Officers and Advisers today.

Cass, who had now, like a Cabinet Secretary, hobnobbed with four prime or prospective prime ministers, returned again to the Ministry of Supply, this time as Chief Statistician. In 1954 he was dragged out of this post to be Private Secretary to the Minister of Supply, first Duncan Sandys, then Aubrey Jones. I think he would have preferred to continue as Chief Statistician.

In 1958 a blip appeared in this promising career. Cass was chosen as one of the 10 leading civil servants of his time to join budding greats from the Services, the Commonwealth and the United States to attend the year-long course at the Imperial Defence College, now the Royal College of Defence Studies. The IDC had a reputation for light work and heavy drinking and Cass, then virtually a teetotaller, must have been beguiled by devilish Service colleagues to indulge too much one lunchtime. That afternoon he was picked up by the police for attempting to get into a stranger's car in Belgravia. The incident was cruelly leaked to the press, who had a mini field day.

Whether this incident had any effect on his future career is a moot point. The Air Ministry, to which he was posted at the beginning of 1959, took an indulgent view. He rose steadily through the hierarchy of the Ministry of Defence, concentrating on finance and the budget. He occupied the key seat of Deputy Under-Secretary of State, doing the best he could for the Services with the Treasury. An impossible job, but Cass remained at all times equable (some would say too equable), unfazed, unflappable, clinically efficient, unemotionally involved, moving a mountain of paper each day but always ready to return at 6pm to his beloved family and garden in Golders Green.

In retirement, in 1976, he served for seven years on the Review Board for Government Contracts, much needed after the scandal of Ferranti and the bankruptcies of Rolls-Royce and Handley Page, and was an Alternate Governor for the Bank of Rhodesia and Chairman of the Verbatim Reporting Study Group.

For the last 27 years of his life he battled with ill-health. He commented that in old age "some break down from the bottom upwards. Some start at the top. Fortunately my top is OK." Indeed it was, sharp, incisive to the end, and he attended his roses as long as he could and watched cricket on TV, and his favourite detective, Frost.

Patrick Shovelton

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