'It's a strange thing,' said Harold Macmillan after becoming Prime Minister, 'that I have now got the biggest job I ever had, and less help in doing it than I have ever known.' He referred, of course, to the absence of any significant department for the Prime Minister - the 'hole in the centre of the system', as Lord Hunt put it. That most premiers have managed to live with this situation is testament to the strength of the amateur tradition in British politics. Even Macmillan, for all his perception of the problem, still preferred to govern by means of haphazard and short-term expedients, to react to events rather than to anticipate. Yet the idea of a real Prime Minister's Office had assumed concrete form some forty years earlier in Lloyd George's so-called Personal Secretariat; and although some of the apparatus associated with his wartime system has survived, notably the Cabinet Secretariat, successive premiers since then have seldom felt the same need for expertise on hand in Downing Street which Lloyd George attempted to satisfy. It was not until after the 1970 Election, when Edward Heath assumed the premiership, that the Personal Secretariat returned to life in the form of the Central Policy Review Staff, popularly known as the Think Tank. What seems surprising is that Heath's Think Tank, with a basic staff of only twenty, was not much larger than Lloyd George's.
LRB 24 November 1988 | PDF Download