OBITUARY: Sir Godfrey Agnew

Godfrey Agnew was for 21 years Clerk of the Privy Council. The main function of the Council today is to give formal effect to Proclamations and Orders in Council, which are issued by the Crown under prerogative or statutory powers. Such instruments are enacted "by and with the advice of Her Majesty's Privy Council".

In fact the Crown acts on the advice of the Government in the exercise of the prerogative, and where statutory provision exists the power has been authorised by Parliament, through an Act of Parliament. Proclamations are issued for such matters as proroguing, dissolving, and summoning Parliament and declaring war or peace. Orders in Council may be legislative, executive, or judicial in effect. A Privy Council is called for certain ceremonial occasions, such as the acceptance of office by a newly appointed minister. It was to the proper ordering of all such matters that Agnew devoted his working life.

"Off to a farewell party at the Privy Council office, with nice little speeches by Godfrey Agnew and myself. We have had a love-hate relationship." Thus Dick Crossman in his weekly diaries in the entry for 1 November 1968. There was far more of a love than a hate element. A worm's eye view it may have been, but I was, as the late James Reston would put it, "under the carpet" at the many meetings Crossman had in his House of Commons room with Agnew, when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Lord President of the Council.

They got off to an inauspicious start. Agnew did not know that Crossman had to wear a corset across his middle body for medical reasons, and therefore found it difficult to ambulate backwards in the presence of the Queen at formal Privy Council inductions. As soon as he knew, Agnew bent his ingenuity towards integrating protocol procedure and medical problem.

Crossman referred to Agnew as a jackass on first acquaintance, which he later told me was grotesquely unfair but one of the hazards of keeping a diary in which it was illegitimate to excise bad wrong judgements. That relations dramatically improved should be attributed largely to Agnew's pawky sense of humour and amusing insight. He had a refined, sardonic wit which was appealing. In his entry for 11 January 1967 Crossman wrote:

As we left I felt this time it had been a great deal easier. [Sandringham.] I suppose the truth is that she [the Queen] really likes people she knows and every time you see her she tends to like you better simply because she's got more used to you. I remember once asking Godfrey Agnew whether she preferred the Tories to us because they were our social superiors and he said "I don't think so. The Queen doesn't make fine distinctions between politicians of different parties. They all roughly belong to the same social category in her view." I think that's true.

I was actually in Crossman's common room - it was early evening gin-and- tonic time - and I recollect they both chuckled uproariously. The remark epitomised Agnew's subtle humour and was funny because Agnew sensed Crossman's own view of himself, very much as Wykehamist upper-class.

Some 15 years after Richard Crossman was in his grave I asked Agnew how he looked back on Crossman. Agnew smiled that unmalicious arch smile. "The Chinese tell us that fortunate are those who live in interesting times. I was fortunate with all 12 of my bosses the Lords President of the Council but Crossman was such fun." Reflectively, Agnew added, "And you know any man likes to be remembered, even as a footnote in history. Were it not for my appearance in the Crossman diaries only my family and close friends would have remembered that I ever existed."

On another occasion I asked Agnew what he thought his job was. "To lubricate relations between the Palace and Government and to make sure not so much that protocol prevails, as that relations go smoothly. If you like, I am the Sir Charles Harris or the Sir Freddie Warren [successive secretaries of the government Chief Whip] and embodiment of the parliamentary usual channels between parties and the physical embodiment of the usual channels between Palace and the governing party."

Godfrey Agnew was well regarded by the Queen and her Household. She knew him well because his first wife was the daughter of the famous Charles Moore, who was her father's and her racing trainer.

Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone, who was twice Lord President of the Council, looks back on Agnew with affection. "We worked well together," he said. Doubtless the same could be said by any of the 10 other holders of this great office of state.

Tam Dalyell

William Godfrey Agnew, courtier: born Tunbridge Wells 11 October 1913; Senior Clerk, Privy Council Office 1946-51, Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council 1951-53, Clerk 1953-74; CVO 1953, KCVO 1965; Deputy Secretary, Cabinet Office 1972-74; CB 1975; married 1939 Ruth Moore (died 1962; three sons, three daughters), 1965 Lady (Nancy) Tyrwhitt (two stepsons, one stepdaughter); died 10 December 1995.

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