The Corridors of Power
The Great Offices of State is part of The Corridors of Power season on BBC Four. Also in this season is Getting Our Way, a series looking back at 500 years of intrigue to construct a history of British diplomacy.Go to the Getting Our Way website
Inside the Secret Corridors of Power
Is the Foreign Office really like Hogwarts? Clare Bolt meets a man who knows...
To quote The Sunday Telegraph, "You’re nobody in politics until you’ve been Cockerelled".
Journalist Michael Cockerell has made an art of political portraiture, producing 20 in as many years: from Ted (Heath) to Tony (Blair), he specialises in teasing out the ‘human side’ of politicians.
But this time around, It’s not just the ministers who are wrenched into daylight. In his series The Great Offices of State, Cockerell slips behind the scenes at the Treasury, the Exchequer and the Foreign Office to discover who wields the real power.
The series delivers a ‘Hogwartian’ twist, delving into the dark and hidden secret corridors of the institutions and ‘get the essence of the place’.
‘I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,’ Cockerell recalls over lunch. ‘But this is not an observational documentary, it’s more a sense of the three great offices – their history, their specific culture and ethos. I wanted to look at the kinds of people who choose to become Foreign Office diplomats or Treasury mandarins.’
The working title, The Chamber of Secrets, was particularly apt, given the camera-shy nature of mandarins.
Take the permanent secretaries who inhabit a world behind the scenes. ‘They’re the people for whom discretion is like calcium in their bones,’ Cockerell says. ‘They are professionally discreet. What I try to do is to get people to speak candidly; if you talk to anyone about the place they work they will have a view.’
Is it true that ministers get moulded by their permanent civil servants? ‘One diplomat said to me that the Foreign Office tends to view the arrival of a new Foreign Secretary as an oyster regards the intrusion of a piece of grit,’ he smiles. ‘Likely to prove an irritant and of little lasting value.’
Roy Jenkins told him that at the Home Office ‘things come at you out of a clear blue sky’, while the Treasury more closely resembles ‘a long winter’. What he learned was that each office has a different history and different characteristics: each has to deal with a different set of problems, which in turn causes them to behave in distinct ways.
The series also takes in their provenance: the Home Office, for instance, was formed in 1782 on the back of the Gordon Riots. ‘It came out of the barrel of a gun and hasn’t really changed’ – while the FO was built in Victorian times, an edifice which expressed Britain’s status at the height of its imperial power.
The FO, he says, traditionally saw itself as the Queen’s representative abroad and liked to think that it recruited the cleverest people in the country, more often from a more narrow social class than the other civil services (the old public schools like Eton and Winchester were favourites).
‘The interesting question for the Foreign Office is how Britain comes to terms with our reduced circumstances,’ Cockerell says. ‘One US Secretary of State said the British had lost an empire, but not yet found a role. The story of the FO is the story of how successive diplomats and ambassadors have come to terms with that.’
The programme takes us to the present day, where Cockerell gets a lucky break. ‘I knew that Jacqui Smith was standing down and a reshuffle was pending,’ he recalls. ‘So I rang Alan Johnson and said, I hear you might be in the frame for getting one of the great offices – could we be with you when you go to your new office?
‘He said, ‘Not for the first time Michael, you seem to know more about it than me. But yes, you can be put on alert.’ We were there filming when he arrived and when he was introduced to his permanent secretary, Sir David Normington.’
Article By Clare Bolt. Originally published in Ariel 02 Feb 10.