Sir James Waddell

Dependable civil servant once mooted as Director-General of MI5

James Henderson Waddell, civil servant: born Edinburgh 5 October 1914; Under-Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Local Government 1955-61, Deputy Secretary 1963-66; CB 1960; Under-Secretary, Cabinet Office 1961-63; Deputy Under-Secretary, Home Office 1966-75; Kt 1974; Deputy Chairman, Police Complaints Board 1977-81; President, Open Air Museum, Singleton 1990-94; married 1940 Dorothy Wright (died 1999; one son, one daughter); died East Lavant, West Sussex 3 January 2004.

Almost unknown to the public, other than by frequent and unflattering and unfair mention in the first volume of Richard Crossman's Diaries, James Waddell was widely respected, liked and trusted by his generation in the stratosphere of Whitehall. This Scottish "lad o' pairts" was to become one of the most important civil servants in the domestic affairs of England in the third quarter of the 20th Century.

Waddell's grandfather was one of the regular engine drivers of the Flying Scotsman plying its way before the First World War between King's Cross and Edinburgh. His father was an insurance clerk in Edinburgh. He himself was born in the city in 1914, gained a bursary to George Heriot's School in 1922 and remained there until 1931. In the school "Domesday Book" the form teacher for his final year commented:

Very good ability. Waddell did good work this year. He is a good fellow, solid and dependable.

It was a premonition of the settled view of those who were to work with him.

In later life Waddell told me that he looked back with gratitude to the dedicated Heriot's teacher and particularly to William Gentle, a great headmaster, from 1926 to 1942, "gentle by name, but certainly not gentle by nature", who drove his talented boys to the limits of their capabilities.

Just turned 17, Waddell won another bursary to study History at Edinburgh University, graduating with first class honours in 1935: the only other first of the year was to be his contemporary and lifelong friend Gordon Donaldson, future Historiographer Royal of Scotland and the greatest medieval historian of the Celts.

Waddell said he felt especially lucky in his faculty professors at that time - A.P. Newton (Constitutions of the British Empire), J.D. Mackie (British History), H.J.W. Tillyard (Ancient History) - and, not least, an extremely rigorous tutor in prehistoric archaeology, a dynamo by the name of Mortimer Wheeler.

Entering the Civil Service in 1936, Waddell was first assigned to the National Assistance Board, where his talents for detailed thought were immediately recognised.

On the outbreak of the Second World War he declared himself a pacifist. However, deeply disturbed by the bombing of London in the Blitz, he changed his mind, saying that he wasn't justified in pretending to know better than the Government. Uncharacteristically, he told me in 1984 that he was totally sympathetic to those who opposed the Falklands War. He believed that war was seldom an instrument of policy that could bring lasting good.

Hitler was a different matter. After training at the First Infantry Training Centre he was sent to the Armoured Corps and was commissioned in January 1944 as a second lieutenant in 61 Reconnaissance Regiment. On 14 June he landed in Normandy attached to 51 Highland Division. However, he was badly wounded in the leg and repatriated to Britain on 8 August, having been rescued and tied to the top of an armoured car before getting back to safety.

In November he was released on account of the leg wound, which was to account for his stiff movement for the rest of his life. Perhaps it was the stiffness due to war wounds in his physical presence that gave ministers an impression of stiffness in attitude in his work.

He ended the war by being sent to Greece in an administrative capacity before returning to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, rising steadily in the department. Philip Allen (now Lord Allen of Abbeydale) recalls that Waddell was a huge help to Harold Macmillan, Minister of Housing when Winston Churchill was returned to power. I know from the late Lord Harmar-Nicholls, Parliamentary Secretary to Macmillan, that Waddell was a key figure in implementing Macmillan's flamboyant promise to build 300,000 houses which launched him eventually to become Prime Minister.

After a period at the Treasury Waddell returned, at the request of Dame Evelyn Sharp, to her Ministry of Housing. As Dick Crossman's Parliamentary Private Secretary attending most of his meetings with Sharp, Waddell, John Rogerson and (the future Sir) James Jones, I knew that Waddell found Crossman intolerable. Indeed Crossman's diary for 16 January 1966 reads:

I have had a four-day tour of the South-West. On Thursday I went off to Taunton on one of my official visits. I took Waddell, my deputy, whom I have found difficult to get on with during the last months because he is such a rigid, stiff civil servant who, I suspect, finds my methods unbearable. I thought it might relax the atmosphere between us if we spent three or four days together. Watching me handle a variety of local authorities, he seemed quite impressed; but our relations were just as difficult at the end of the tour as they were at the beginning. He is somebody I would dearly like to see promoted out of the Ministry.

Crossman got his wish. Sir Charles Cunningham, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, and his successor elect, the then Sir Philip Allen, thought that, for the very reasons that irritated Crossman, Waddell was exactly the safe pair of hands necessary for someone with the key job of overseeing the Security Service and handling the police. His qualities of caution and scepticism that had infuriated the mercurial Crossman were what they needed.

Both Allen and Waddell were to be criticised by Peter Wright in his 1987 memoir Spycatcher: the candid autobiography of a senior intelligence officer:

Allen's preferred candidate was Sir James Waddell, a Deputy Secretary at the Home Office, who was responsible for police and security affairs and handled all day-to-day liaison between MI5 and the Home Office. Waddell was a dependable mandarin who had somehow missed out on a Permanent Secretary's job. Allen, to whom he had given loyal service, wanted to install him as Director-General of the Security Service.

The idea of such an appointment was viewed with some alarm inside MI5:

[Waddell] was a finicky man who insisted on the last dot and comma on intercept-warrant applications. He lacked the experience as an intelligence officer to gain the respect of its senior officers. Many of us felt his candidacy was pure Whitehall expediency, which would set the service back a decade, in the same way that [Sir John] Rennie's appointment as C just a few years before had caused a massive slump in morale in MI6.

Wright continues with a description of his visit to Sir Robert Armstrong, the then Cabinet Secretary, at 10 Downing Street:

On my next visit to No 10 I made a light reference to the fears inside MI5. He smiled. "The cards are stacked against you," he said. "I don't think it's worth pushing this one." I told him that if the wise men were intent on Waddell they were making a mistake. "We aren't being civil servants," I told him, "and Waddell will be out of his depth in the job . . . he'll play it too much by the rules."

Armstrong betrayed little himself beyond telling me what I already knew, that the Permanent Secretaries were firmly behind Waddell. "They just want to reward him, and they can't find him a top job in any of the other ministries!" I said bitterly. Armstrong laughed. "Oh no, Peter, we're not that conspiratorial."

For the rest of his life Waddell was quietly delighted that he should have been so violently criticised by Wright - the grounds for criticism being that he had made a serious effort and was likely to continue to make a serious effort to ensure that the security services were in compliance with the law of the land.

On retirement from the Civil Service he spent four years as Deputy Chairman of the Police Complaints Board.

Tam Dalyell

Comments