But after six months of General Sir David Ramsbotham as head of the Prisons Inspectorate and nine months' tenure for General Sir Thomas Boyd-Carpenter as chairman of the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), Whitehall is coming to terms with the idea that generals will not always do as they are told, that they can be very bolshie indeed.
As for admirals, Sir Peter Woodhead, chief of staff to the Flag Officer Commanding Falklands Naval Task Force but now Prisons Service Ombudsman, is embroiled in a public showdown with the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, over his remit and autonomy.
"I regard my independence," said Sir David, formerly the Army's Adjutant- General, "as the right to go anywhere, see anything and report what I find, not what people would like to think I find - and report on why I think it so."
There is no concealing the Home Office's surprise that Sir David has approached his job, as one official put it, so robustly. Despite the official version that Sir David was the best man for a job open to competitive recruitment, there is little doubt that the Home Office was looking for somebody who would be less troublesome than the outgoing chief inspector, the bow-tied and outspoken Judge Stephen Tumim. "This," said the official, "wasn't what we had in mind at all."
According to Sir Thomas, former chief of staff to the British Army of the Rhine, "it's a misconception that generals just do as they are told. There's a lot of debate and exchange between the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence. We disagree normally in private rather than in public with our political bosses, but we do feel we have a wider loyalty."
Under Sir Thomas, the Social Security Advisory Committee, which provides independent studies on the operation of the benefits system, has revived. Members contrast his chairmanship favourably with that of his predecessor, the former British Telecoms executive Sir Michael Bett. "It went to sleep," said one.
The Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley may not lose sleep over the committee's reports, but he cannot take it for granted. Sir Thomas put his name earlier this year to a scathing report over the idea of cutting benefits to asylum-seekers, using un-Tory language about the "vulnerable and defenceless in society".
The idea of Sir Thomas as a thorn in the Government's side is all the more surprising given his impeccable Tory connections. He is the brother of Lady (Sarah) Hogg, former head of John Major's Number 10 think-tank, and son of Lord Boyd-Carpenter, a minister in Tory governments in the Fifties and early Sixties. His appointment to the advisory committee was denounced as nepotism.
Sir David's arrival as HM Inspector of Prisons was met with tabloid headlines saying "Rambo" was going to toughen jail sentences. But within weeks he had refused to inspect Holloway jail in London. "It was not working; it was not decent," he said.
Sir David publicly criticised the Home Secretary's favoured remedy for youth crime of "boot camps", speaking of his intrinsic suspicion "of things that come across the Atlantic like this". These were not off-the-cuff remarks by an amateur - Sir David was head of Army public relations during the Falklands War. He said: "Although the Armed Services are apolitical, we are of course aware of the political aspect of every task set us. We are used to serving a master in a national, not a political, sense.
"In the military we are used to doing something about what we inspect. For two and a half years I was inspector-general of the Territorial Army. Frankly I never fudge if I see something I don't think right."
Sir David clearly feels he would be able to serve under a Home Secretary of a different political stripe. "I was in command of a brigade in Belfast. One day it was Roy Mason (Labour Northern Ireland Secretary), then it was Humphrey Atkin (who took over when Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979). I was still commanding Belfast."
Since the Duke of Wellington's time, the occasional senior officer has left the Forces to start a public career - though none since has ended up as Prime Minister. In the early Fifties, General Sir Ian Jacob became director-general of the BBC. Recent examples of generals on transfer include Sir Peter Baldwin, chief executive of the Independent Radio Authority.
But the trickle has become a steady stream as the "Options for Change" defence review has slashed military postings. Several senior Army medics have moved into the NHS, including Major-General Peter Craig, now a consultant in the accident and emergency unit at Wansbeck General Hospital. Both Sir Thomas and Sir David have experience as chairmen of NHS Trusts.
According to Sir David, "enormous talent" is being unloaded from the services. Whether in future Conservative ministers will be as keen to employ it as they once were remains to be seen.Reuse content