Under the 30 year rule, we are now entitled to read the unexpurgated history of the first Thatcher Administration, elected in 1979. Its inner wirings have been laid bare as minutes of meetings, together with her dismissive comments on official submissions, come into the public domain. We read of her impatience with civil servants and Ministers at the lack of radical action to reduce the financial deficit and the numbers in the public sector.
Somewhere in the same archives are recorded the actions of those of us lower down the ministerial food chain who started working the same day. As a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, they came no lower. My job was to sign the letters, reply to the late night Adjournment Debates in the House of Commons, meet visiting Ministers of the same lowly rank from overseas, get the Department’s legislative programme through the House and, in the words of W S Gilbert, “ to run on little errands for the Minister of State.” And to appear on the Today Programme when a sacrificial lamb was required.
I arrived at Alexander Fleming House, the Headquarters of what was at that time the Department of Health and Social Security, on the Monday after the election. The foyer was full of smoke, and behind the reception desk was a chain-smoking commissionaire. Not, I thought, a great advertisement for my new policies on preventive medicine. After meeting those who were to work for me in the Private office, I made some enquiries to see whether we might find, from the army of people the Prime Minister was criticising me for employing, a non-smoker to greet our guests.
My enquiry was made before the first edition of Yes Minister had been screened, so I was an innocent about the machinations of the British Civil Service. A detailed paper was in my red box that very night. My request was of course being taken seriously, and the Department was aware of its responsibilities to promote a non-smoking environment. The zeal of the newly-arrived Parliamentary Under Secretary of State on the evils of tobacco had been noted from his trenchant speeches as a back bencher in the Parliament that had just ended, when he had criticised the Department’s limp-wristed actions. However, the Department was also conscious of its obligations as an employer and it had to respect the contracts of employment with its staff. Legal advice had been taken on my request. (Always a bad sign, as I was to learn later)
The individual concerned was a popular employee and deeply committed to his work. There had been no complaints about him. There was nothing in his contract of employment that prevented him from smoking while on duty. His Union, the National Union of Public Employees, would take a lively interest in his case if Ministers were minded to move him, against his wishes, to another role. Would it be wise to discuss the matter with the Secretary of State before I took the matter further. (Another bad sign)
I will never know the outcome of my initiative. Margaret Thatcher moved me from my job before I moved the smoker from his.