Obituary: Sir James Jones

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The Independent Online
"Harold [Wilson] has bloody well stitched me up," Dick Crossman fumed on the night of Monday 9 May 1966. Or as a calmer, less angry, Crossman put it, writing his weekly diary on Sunday for Tuesday 10 May:

In the evening, I was due to see the Prime Minister about the battle I was having to get historic buildings transferred from the Ministry of Works to the Ministry of Housing. However, that had been conceded before I got there and we were able to chat informally. At the end, he said to me, quite offhand: "By the way, your Mr J.D. Jones will be going as deputy in Barbara's department." I knew at once he had fixed me because, of course, the Prime Minister appoints permanent secretaries and deputies as well.

Crossman had such a high regard for Jones that his next action was to say that Jones should only go to the Ministry of Transport as Permanent Secretary and not as Deputy Secretary. That battle Crossman lost.

In his entry for the same Tuesday Crossman writes:

I talked to Steve [Swingler] straight away about the future of J.D. Jones. I told him that the PM, and Barbara Castle as well, had been at me and that I couldn't hold the breach. Steve, whose first reaction to the rumour was that it was impossible to let J.D. go, was already caving in. "Anyway," he added to me, "Jones is miserably unhappy in the department and he wants to go. He told me so himself."

I sent for Jones this evening and, of course, he denied there was anything personal in it, but under pressure it was clear that he resents the whole atmosphere of the department since the Dame [Evelyn Sharp] has left. It's not merely me, it's having Stevenson [Sir Matthew Stevenson, the new Permanent Secretary] and five politicians on top of him. But there is no doubt I am a negative factor. And he did say to me in the course of this long interview: "I know one has to pay a heavy price for having able ministers and, in your case, we pay it." So we've lost him, and that's that.

As the Parliamentary Private Secretary, I was a silent fly on the wall at that interview. All too clearly, Jones wanted to run the British urban environment in his own way.

Jimmy Jones was the favourite son and henchman-in-chief at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government of Dame Evelyn Sharp, the Permanent Secretary at the time. Enormously clever, talented, devoted to the public service, utterly incorruptible in any sense, Jones and Sharp exuded certainties that they were right and knew better than any one else. Their unspoken contract with the politicians was that ministers were there to be guided by them - and so long as this divine guidance was generally accepted, they would slave night and day for their "political" masters. If, on the other hand, those politicians were foolhardy enough to say, "Wait a moment - we are elected - we doubt that actual people appreciate what you, Evelyn, and you, Jimmy, deem to be good for them" - sullen trouble loomed.

For example, in the autumn of 1965 Crossman's inspector had urged Crossman to turn down a request from an oil company for planning permission on Canvey Island.

The Dame and Jones, however, were insistent that Crossman should overrule the inspector in the national interest. The Foreign Office, the Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Power, the Department of Economic Affairs, and the Treasury all insisted that we couldn't afford to upset a foreign oil company. Crossman perversely thought it was his duty to represent the unfortunate house owners who had left London and bought a place in Essex only to find that their home was to be utterly ruined by a development. He thought it true that Canvey Island was then a pretty awful spot which had been thoroughly ruined by unplanned building. But that even when very little amenity survived, that little meant more to the people who lived there than all the amenity of a beautiful national park a hundred miles away.

Dame Evelyn and Jones lectured Crossman that his views were those of a sentimental preservationist. However, Crossman won this battle, much to the upset of the mandarins.

Then there was the case of the Cambridge Planning Problems in the spring of 1965. Crossman wrote of Jones that he was brilliant at briefing his minister. However, the briefing did not take into account Crossman's perception of the views of the people of Cambridge and again there was a clash when Crossman told Jones curtly that the men in Whitehall did not necessarily know best.

However, on a number of very important issues, such as the protection of the coastline - albeit against Jones's wishes and those of the Planning Division in the first instance - Jones backed his Secretary of State with demonic energy and huge skill in Whitehall. His colleague as a permanent secretary Philip Allen, now Lord Allen of Abbeydale, told me: "Jones showed great ingenuity in tackling problems and finding a way through the jungle."

The first reference in Crossman's Diaries to Jones, reflecting on his entry to the Ministry of Housing, describes him as a "clever, keen Welshman". He was nothing of the kind. He was a Scot. But, unlike most Scots who have had tremendous success in London, he kept it quiet and did not flaunt it.

Jones told me that he never knew his father, who was killed in France in the early stages of the First World War. His mother married again and it was decided that in the closeness of the Glasgow Jewish community he should be brought up by an aunt who scraped together the wherewithal to send him to the academically intense High School of Glasgow. Like many First Class honours history graduates of Glasgow University, Jones was given a scholarship to Oxford to read PPE at University College.

If Evelyn Sharp was to be his second patron, the master of University College, the redoubtable Sir William Beveridge, was his first. Jones, in 1940, characteristically volunteered not only for the Navy but for the dangerous job of mine-laying. However, after a year in the North Sea and Arctic in the ranks, he was plucked by Beveridge to join the Admiralty at Bath. Soon he became Private Secretary to Sir Henry Markham MC, who himself had been Private Secretary to Sir Samuel Hoare and Duff Cooper, and was the powerful senior civil servant in the Admiralty.

The stable from which Jones had emerged as a young man gave him an enormous, but not dishonourable, appetite for wielding power. The friendship with Beveridge also had another consequence - friendship with Beveridge's young assistant, by the name of Harold Wilson. Both Crossman and Evelyn Sharp told me at different times that they had no doubt that Jones had a special entree to his friend the Prime Minister. He had a further entree to power in the Labour Party since he had been Principal Private Secretary in the late 1940s, when he joined the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, to the minister, Lewis Silkin, the father of John Silkin who was to be Labour's Chief Whip and an intimate of Harold Wilson.

Jones was a tremendous action man in Whitehall and it was possibly for this reason above all others that Barbara Castle wanted him in her Ministry of Transport to get the motorway programme running. As permanent secretary, Jones loyally served Peter Walker and Geoffrey Rippon but, truth to tell, his relationships with those who worked under him in such a conglomerate ministry were less than happy. Last time I saw him, he said that he was glad to be out of the Civil Service and to be able to devote his energies to the setting up of the Department of Advanced Urban Studies at Bristol University.

For some years he was going almost blind and had suffered poor health which was a special burden for such a quicksilver, energetic man.

Tam Dalyell

James Duncan Jones, civil servant: born Glasgow 28 October 1914; Principal Private Secretary, Admiralty 1947-50; Secretary, Local Government Commission for England 1958-61; Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Local Government 1963-66; CB 1964, KCB 1972; Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Transport 1966- 70; Secretary, Local Government and Development, Department of Environment 1970-72; Permanent Secretary, Department of the Environment 1972-75; married 1943 Jenefer Wade (one son); died Wallingford 6 September 1995.