Sir Frank Cooper

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The Independent Online

Frank Cooper, civil servant: born Manchester 2 December 1922; Private Secretary to Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Air 1949-51, to Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Air 1951-53, to Chief of the Air Staff 1953-55; Assistant Secretary, Head of the Air Staff Secretariat 1955-60; CMG 1961; Director of Accounts, Air Ministry 1961-62, Assistant Under-Secretary of State 1962-64; Assistant Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence 1964-68, Deputy Under-Secretary of State 1968-70, Permanent Under-Secretary of State 1973-76; CB 1970, KCB 1974, GCB 1979; Deputy Secretary, Civil Service Department 1970-73; Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office 1973-76; PC 1983; married 1948 Peggie Claxton (two sons, one daughter); died Sidcup, Kent 26 January 2002.

It is a measure of Frank Cooper's remarkable capabilities that he was one of two obvious contenders to become head of the Civil Service when Sir Douglas Allen retired in 1977 and the favoured candidate to head the Prime Minister's Department had Margaret Thatcher gone ahead with it in 1983. The qualities that attracted her attention were perhaps those that had led to the choice of the other candidate six years earlier, but it was to the immense benefit of the Ministry of Defence that he remained as its permanent head from 1976 until 1982.

The son of an area manager for Terry's chocolate, Cooper was born in Manchester in 1922 and educated at Manchester Grammar School, and read History at Pembroke College, Oxford. His education was interrupted by the Second World War, which saw him flying Spitfires in Italy. Shot down over enemy territory, he evaded capture and made his way back to the Allied lines. Emerging from the RAF in 1946, he completed his degree and took up employment with a firm of chartered accountants.

That he found far too dull and joined the Air Ministry in 1948. Within a year he was in private office, initially with two successive junior ministers, then from 1951 to 1953 with the Permanent Secretary, Sir James Barnes, and finally with the Chief of Air Staff, Sir John Slessor, a central figure in developing Britain's nuclear capability. As an assistant secretary he headed the Air Staff secretariat, but his most memorable achievement was his work alongside Julian Amery in securing Britain's sovereign bases in Cyprus. Cooper recalled no less than 109 meetings with the wily Archbishop Makarios before a settlement was reached.

Nor was his upward path checked by the amalgamation of the three service ministries into the Ministry of Defence in 1964. The incoming Labour Secretary of State, Denis Healey, recalls him as a major support: he was relaxed where his great rival in the department, Patrick Nairne, was intense; and his memoranda were brief and pungent.

In 1968 he was promoted to be Deputy Under-Secretary of State for Defence. After a spell as deputy to William Armstrong in the newly formed Civil Service Department, Cooper took over the Northern Ireland Office, where his great administrative skill was taxed to the full by the generation of the Constitution Act and the Assembly elections. The then Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, confessed himself "frankly amazed" by the amount that had been achieved in short measure. Cooper played a key role in the negotiations between the Northern Irish parties which followed and which led to the doomed Sunningdale Agreement.

When, after the 1974 election, a new Secretary of State arrived on the scene, the SDLP's Paddy Devlin memorably observed that the newcomer had been Frank Cooper's fitter during the war and the relationship was still the same. It was not true. Merlyn Rees had served with Cooper in Italy, but as an operations officer on the base from which Cooper operated. The latter cherished the greeting that Rees gave him on his return from baling out in enemy territory: "Where the hell have you been?" The two men got on well and, as Rees recalls, "did not always play in public the usual Yes, Minister game". They were equally a team in private and Rees describes him as "swift and incisive in thought and action, keenly aware of what was happening in the province". He was very sorry to see him go.

It was Cooper's delicate negotiations with the IRA to secure a ceasefire in 1975 that first brought him into the public eye. Asked whether he had talked himself with Sinn Fein, he said "No", but he had "organised the people who talked . . . The object was to get rid of internment and bring back the rule of law." He denied he was changing British policy, simply "clarifying it".

The unexpected death of Sir Michael Cary in 1976 precipitated Cooper's return to Defence and, as Healey remarked, the ministry "benefited greatly from having an expert on defence in the engine room". An inveterate Whitehall watcher, Peter Hennessy, reckons that a new generation of top civil servants emerged between 1974 and 1976, men for whom everything was possible, and the most powerful axis that developed amongst them was that between the Cabinet Secretary, Sir John Hunt, and Cooper. They were tough, no-nonsense fixers and great friends. Their ability was at a premium at a time when it was fashionable to write of a crisis in governance.

At Defence, Cooper reckoned that three-quarters of his job was management and he thought the department overmanned. By the time he left it in December 1982, 55,000 others had gone before him. Another achievement, as befitted a former Director of Accounts, was to shift the pattern of defence spending in such a way that he freed up 10 per cent extra spending on equipment. But he was convinced that, if he were allowed to roll over money from one year to another and to take a longer-term look at the defence spend, even greater effectiveness could be achieved; and he waged a ferocious and ultimately successful battle with the Treasury to gain his point.

But he could be brutally frank about mistakes made by or forced on his department, admitting, for example, that the Chevaline project to modernise Polaris was "a classic case of reinventing the wheel"; and he was subsequently strongly in favour of purchasing Trident from the United States. It was, he said, "the safe option: you were not going to get into a situation where the money graph went right off the corner".

He had established the Financial Management and Planning Group in 1977 and it came to rank with the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the Equipment Policy Committee as a major centre of power. Fed up with inter-service bickering and horse trading, he created a working party to see how defence programmes could be managed as a whole. The result was the Defence Programme Steering Group, which worked directly to FMPG. He was in favour of the strengthening of the powers of the Chief of Defence Staff in 1981 and welcomed the further reorganisation that took place under Michael Heseltine in 1985.

Implementing the 1974/75 defence review had been amongst Cooper's first tasks, but he came to the conclusion that no government had yet matched Britain's commitments to the resources the country could afford. As a result, everything was spread too thin. Sceptical though he was of the exaggerated nature of threat assessments in general, he welcomed the advent of the Conservative government in 1979, not for party reasons, but because it would ensure continued development of the nuclear deterrent.

Defence White Papers became franker about the continued Soviet threat. Though Cooper backed Francis Pym's fight against defence cuts in 1980, he welcomed his more Thatcherite successor, John Nott, because of his determination to review Britain's defence posture and concentrate her efforts on the areas that mattered. Ironically, what wrecked that effort was the Royal Navy's success in the Falklands crisis.

Again Cooper came into the public gaze, this time attacked for not telling the truth to the press. While he would tell no lies, he had no intention of revealing all. If that misled them, so be it. Lives were not there to be risked for the sake of a good story. He vigorously defended that attitude when the House of Commons investigated the Defence Ministry's handling of the press. Few who served would think him wrong. In general, however, he thought governments too secretive and was much more open than most. The journalist Ivan Rowan in a valedictory piece described Cooper as "Whitehall's frankest mandarin" and in retirement he was always ready to co-operate with young academics. From 1986 to 1992 he presided over the activities of the Institute for Contemporary British History.

Although he enjoyed playing the tycoon, his career in industry was marred by controversy over his association with defence-related companies, not least the troubled helicopter company Westland. "What the bloody hell am I supposed to do?" he asked with characteristic pugnacity. "Put on my carpet slippers?" But, after three years as chairman of United Scientific Holdings, the post that had generated most of the attacks, he resigned in 1989.

Cooper was the most unstuffy of men. His talk had nothing of Whitehallese about it and was memorable for its vivid phraseology. He conveyed always an enormous sense of fun. He was sometimes unpopular with subordinates, but invariably they had fallen short of the expectations he had of them and resented the way in which he made no secret of his feelings. Generally he was more relaxed, but behind the breeziness lay an immensely sharp mind and an ability to get to the point.

When profiling him in 1981, Hennessy was told that Cooper "gets away with it because he is more of a politician than the politicians themselves" and they did not know how to handle that. Cooper always thought of himself as a Manchester radical, but in truth he was the supreme pragmatist, always aware of the art of the possible, even if frequently he chafed at the results.

John Barnes