John Barnes, Historian

Rt. Hon. Sir Frank Cooper


It is a measure of Frank Cooper's remarkable capabilities that he was one of two obvious contenders to become head of the civil service in 1977 and the favoured candidate to head the Prime Minister's department had Mrs Thatcher gone ahead with it in 1983. The qualities that attracted her attention were perhaps those that led to the choice of the other candidate six years earlier, but it was to the immense benefit of the Ministry of Defence that he remained as its permanent head from 1976 until 1982.

Cooper was educated at Manchester Grammar School and at Pembroke College, Oxford, where, no mean feat, he managed to secure a third in history. His education was interrupted by the war, which saw him flying spitfires in Italy. Shot down over enemy territory, he evaded capture and made his way back to the allied lines. Emerging from the air force in 1946, he completed his degree and took up employment with a firm of chartered accountants. That he found far too dull and joined the Air Ministry in 1948. Within a year he was in private office, initially with two successive junior ministers, then from 1951-3 with the Permanent Secretary, Sir James Barnes, and finally with the Chief of Air Staff, Sir John Slessor, a central figure in developing Britain's nuclear capability. He next took charge of the Air Staff secretariat, but his most memorable achievement (for which he received the CMG) was his work in securing Britain's sovereign bases in Cyprus. Cooper recalled no less than 109 meetings with the wily Archbishop Makarios before a settlement was reached. Nor was his upward path checked by the amalgamation of the three service ministries into the Ministry of Defence in 1964. The incoming Labour Secretary of State, Denis Healey, recalls him as a major support, relaxed, where his great rival in the department, Patrick Nairne, was intense "and always preferred the wood to the trees." His memoranda were brief and pungent, rarely extending to more than one side of an A4 sheet.

In 1968 he was promoted to Deputy Under Secretary of State (Policy) and in 1970 seconded as William Armstrong's deputy in the newly formed Civil Service Department. Promotion to Permanent Secretary in the Northern Ireland Office fllowed in 1973, and his great administrative skill was taxed to the full by the generation of the Constitution Act and machinery for the Assembly elections. WilliamWhitelaw, his Secretary of State was "frankly amazed" by the amount that had been achieved in short measure. Cooper played a key role in the negotiations between the Northern Irish Parties which followed and led to the doomed Sunningdale Agreement.

After the 1974 election, when Merlyn Rees became Secretary of State, the SDLP's Paddy Devlin memorably observed that the newcomer had been Frank Cooper's fitter during the war and the relationship was still the same. It was not true. Merlyn Rees had served with Cooper in Italy, but as an operations officer on the base from which Cooper operated. The latter cherished the greeting he received from Rees on his return from baling out in enemy territory: "Where the hell have you been?" The two men got on well and, as Rees recalls "did not always play in public the usual "Yes, Minister" game." They were equally a team in private and Rees thought Cooper "swift and incisive in thought and action, keenly aware of what was happening in the province." He was very sorry to see him go. It was Cooper's delicate negotiations with the IRA to secure a ceasefire in 1975 that first brought him into the public eye. Asked whether he had talked himself with Sinn Fein, he said "No", but he had "organised the people who talked... The object was to get rid of internment and bring back the rule of law." He denied he was changing British policy, simply "clarifying it".

The unexpected death of Sir Michael Cary in 1976 precipitated Cooper's return to Defence and, as Healey remarked, the ministry "benefited greatly from having an expert on defence in the engine room." An inveterate Whitehall watcher, Peter Hennessy, reckons that a new generation of top civil servants emerged between 1974 and 1976, men for whom everything was possible, and the most powerful axis that developed was that between the Cabinet Secretary, Sir John Hunt, and Cooper. They were tough, no nonsense, fixers" and great friends. Their ability was at a premium at a time when governments were under great stress.

Cooper reckoned that 75% of his job was management and thought the department overmanned. By the time he left it in December 1982, 55,000 others had preceded him. Another achievement, as befitted a former Director of Accounts, was to shift the pattern of defence spending to free up ten per cent extra on equipment. But he argued that if he was allowed to roll money over from one year to another and to take a longer term look at the defence spend, even greater effectiveness could be achieved; and he waged a ferocious and ultimately successful battle with the Treasury to gain his point. He was brutally frank about mistakes made by or forced on his department, admitting, for example, that the Chevaline project to modernise Polaris was "a classic case of reinventing the wheel". That made him an advocate of purchasing Trident from the United States. It was "the safe option: you were not going to get into a situation where the money graph went right off the corner." He established the Financial Management and Planning Group in 1977 and it rapidly came to rank with the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the Equipment Policy Committee as a major centre of power. Fed up with inter service bickering and horse trading, he created a working party to see how defence programmes could be managed as a whole. The result was the Defence Programme Steering Group, which worked directly to FMPG. Cooper favoured the strengthening of the powers of the Chief of Defence Staff in 1981 and welcomed the further reorganisation that Michael Heseltine introduced in 1985.

Perhaps because both men valued efficiency, Cooper got on surprisingly well with the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Joel Barnett. Connoisseurs admired Cooper's deft way with their enquiries. On one memorable occasion, when under fire, he invited the committee to meet in the wardroom of a nuclear submarine in Chatham. "They were like schoolboys on a treat." Their last encounter was memorable for Cooper's claim that he was the "squaddies' friend" and that if the Treasury would only modify their attitude to capital spending, he could get rid of the wartime huts in which most of the army were still housed.

Implementing the 1974/5 defence review drove Cooper to the conclusion that no government had ever matched Britain's commitments to what she could afford. That meant everything was spread too thin. Sceptical though he was of the exaggerated nature of threat assessments in general, Cooper welcomed the advent of the Conservative Government in 1979, not for party reasons, but because it would ensure continued development of the nuclear deterrent. Defence. His backing of Francis Pym's fight against defence cuts in 1980 did not prevent him welcoming his more Thatcherite successor, John Nott, largely because Nott was determined to review Britain's defence posture and concentrate her efforts on the areas that mattered. Ironically what wrecked that effort was the Royal Navy's success in the Falklands crisis.

Again Cooper came into the public gaze, this time attacked for not telling the truth to the press. While he would tell no lies, he had no intention of revealing all. If that misled them, so be it. Lives were not there to be risked for the sake of a good story. He vigorously defended that attitude when the House of Commons investigated the Defence Ministry's handling of the press. In general, however, he thought Governments too secretive, favoured freedom of information and was very open with journalists. In a valedictory piece, Ivam Rowan characterised him as "Whitehall's frankest mandarin". In retirement he was always ready to cooperate with young academics. He contributed substantially to television and other accounts of the management of Britain's defences and presided from 1986 to 1992 over the activities of the Institute for Contemporary British History.

Although he enjoyed playing the tycoon, his career in industry was marred by controversy over his association with defence-related companies, not least the troubled helicopter company Westland. "What the bloody hell am I supposed to do," he asked with characteristic pugnacity. "Put on my carpet slippers!" But after three years as Chairman of United Scientific Holdings, the post that had generated most of the attacks, he resigned in 1989.

Cooper was the most unstuffy of men. His talk had nothing of Whitehallese about it and was memorable for its vivid phraseology. He conveyed always an enormous sense of fun. He was sometimes unpopular with subordinates: invariably they had fallen short of his expectations and resented the blunt way in which he expressed his feelings. Generally he was more relaxed, but behind the breeziness lay an immensely sharp mind and an ability to get to the point. In argument he loved to advance broad hypotheses, but was equally ready to modify or drop them altogether if they turned out to be untenable for reasons intellectual or political. When profiling him in 1981, Hennessy was told that Cooper "gets away with it because he is more of a politician than the politicians themselves" and they did not know how to handle that. Healey agreed, claming on television that Cooper was not impartial about the bomb but "an extremely intelligent, able politician as well as a civil servant." Cooper thought of himself always as a Manchester radical, but if his thinking was iconoclastic, in action he was the supreme pragmatist, always aware of the art of the possible, even if frequently he chafed at the results.