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Sir George Moseley: Highly valued civil servant


There is a point in the lives of politicians when you form close relationships, and often friendships, with particular civil servants. Then, overnight, with ministerial change or defeat of a government, the relationship evaporates. From October 1964 until he was promoted to assistant secretary in autumn 1965, I saw George Moseley working at close quarters. Moseley was the Principal Private Secretary to the cabinet minister Richard Crossman. I was Crossman's Parliamentary Private Secretary.

As an efficient allocator of departmental business as it pertained to his minister, Moseley was sans pareil. And he had a rare ability to convey to his seniors in acceptable terms where they were being unwise; this was quite a feat when those seniors were the formidable Crossman, Jimmy Jones, James Waddell, Ronald Brain and above all his own boss, the looming Beatrice Webb-like figure of Dame Evelyn Sharp, the Permanent Secretary.

Moseley's political orientation was never revealed, but there was little doubt that he could handle major, ferociously clever politicians. Crossman would yearn later, as Lord President of the Council, Leader of the House and Secretary of State for Health and Pensions, "Oh, that if only George Moseley could come back to me."

I was an astonished fly on the wall in October 1964 when Crossman turned to Moseley and said that he must teach him how to handle all the correspondence that came to the department. The great diarist records, "He sat opposite me with his owlish eyes and said to me, 'Well, minister, you see there are three ways of handling it. A letter can either be answered by you personally, in your own handwriting; or we can draft a personal reply for you to sign; or, if the letter is not worth your answering personally we can draft an official answer."

"What's an official answer?" I asked. "Well, it says the minister has received your letter, and then the department replies. We'll draft all three variants. And if you just tell us which you want..." "How do I do that?" I asked. "Well, you can put all your in-tray into your out-tray," he said, "and if you put it in without a mark on it then we will deal with it and you need never see it again."

George Moseley, the son of William Moseley MBE, told me that he owed his career to his education at the High School of Glasgow, where the Rector, Dr Lees, insisted on the rigorous academic standards. He joined the RAF in 1943 and was posted as a pilot officer to Iraq. Half a century later, he told colleagues he thought Tony Blair was reckless in going along with the Americans to war. "I know that country," he said. "It will be easier to get in than get out."

He gained entrance to Wadham College, Oxford in October 1947, and it was the charismatic warden of Wadham, Sir Maurice Bowra, who advised him to enter the civil service. From 1965, until he became Permanent Secretary in 1981 at the Department of the Environment, he ascended through the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Sir Geoffrey Chipperfield, Principal Private Secretary to the Minister of Housing and a Permanent Secretary from 1991-93, told me, "George was a fine permanent secretary. His handling of different personalities was superb. He was particularly kind and thoughtful towards junior colleagues in difficulty." I saw this in his treatment of the young assistant Private Secretary Brian Ponsford, who was eventually to commit suicide. Moseley went to inordinate lengths to help him.

Chipperfield, who also followed Moseley as head of the British Cement Association, reflected, "George as chairman did most of the heavy lifting in relation to difficult management issues. He left me with an apparatus in excellent order and with first-class relations with the great cement companies."

In retirement, in 1986, Moseley became a much-valued member of the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee and the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England. For 10 years he was chairman of the Trustees of the Civic Trust. He was a man who just got on with such tasks as he deemed worthwhile with no interest in kudos or personal publicity.



George Walker Moseley, civil servant: born Glasgow 7 February 1925; RAF Pilot Officer 1943-48; PPS to Housing Ministers Sir Keith Joseph 1963-1964, RHS Crossman 1964-1965; Permanent Secretary, Department of Environment 1981-85; Chairman of Trustees, Civic Trust 1990-2000; Chairman, British Cement Association 1990-2000; CB 1978, KCB 1982; married 1950 Anne Mercer (died 1989; one son, one daughter), 1990 Madge James; died Saffron Walden 28 September 2011.