Members' Interests: A good sort of fellow: The Civil Servant

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The Independent Online
THOSE who know Sir Robin Butler well agree that he is not a hatchet-man. The words most frequently used about him are 'charm', 'kindness', 'openness', 'cheerful'. He has never passed the buck in his life, friends say.

But if his mind seems less than suspicious when it comes to hotel bills in Paris and associations with Middle Eastern businessmen, it is perhaps explained by what some people would regard as a sheltered life. Born in January 1938 (his father was the boss of a paint company), he went to Harrow, and then to University College, Oxford, where he took a double-first in classics. He joined the Treasury in 1961 and has worked either there or in Downing Street ever since. He was private secretary to both Edward Heath and Harold Wilson and then principal private secretary to Margaret Thatcher before, after another Treasury interlude, he became her cabinet secretary in 1988.

That made him not just the head of the home civil service but virtually the custodian of what passes for the British constitution. If there were a 'hung Parliament' and doubts as to who should be invited to form a government it would be Sir Robin who resolved the crisis.

According to friends, he retains a boyish quality, with exclamations such as 'Gosh]' and 'Super]'. Competitive games are an enthusiasm - he helped found the 'Mandarins' Whitehall cricket XI.

At Harrow, 'he never broke the rules,' says an old chum. 'He would never challenge authority.' He speaks no foreign languages and, according to one friend, he is 'not into foreigners'.

Two university contemporaries admired him. 'He was an absolutely charming fellow,' says Paul Foot. Richard Ingrams found Butler's discretion impenetrable, but 'never stuffy'. He is said to be capable of working long into the night and still arrive, on his bicycle, at his office first thing next morning. He is married to a maths teacher. They have three children.

As the civil service head, he is accustomed to sitting in judgement on civil servants, rather than on ministers and their more worldly dealings. In an age of half-open government, and greater media scrutiny, the traditional civil service attitudes do not always stand up well. One of his predecessors, Sir Robert (now Lord) Armstrong spoke famously in the Spycatcher case of being 'economical with the truth'. In his oral evidence to the Scott Inquiry (on arms to Iraq), Sir Robin did not sound so very different. The purpose of an incomplete answer, he said, 'was to give an answer which in itself was true. It did not give the full picture. It was a half-answer. Half the picture can be true'.

With John Major, it is said, he has occasionally demonstrated a talent for disagreeing without appearing to challenge.

'He has the ability to look a sacred cow in the face without giving the slightest offence,' a former colleague recalls. 'He hates - if that is the appropriate word - to cause offence.' Now, sadly, he is causing offence to those Opposition MPs who believe that he has become an apologist for questionable ministerial actions.

(Photograph omitted)