Sir Kenneth Stowe in 1986. He was modest, soft-spoken, direct, discreet and motivated by a commitment to public service
Most principal private secretaries in No 10 serve one prime minister during their three-year stint in the post. But between 1975 and 1979 Sir Kenneth Stowe was PPS to Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, three very different leaders. Stowe, who has died aged 88, was supremely loyal to all of them and they in turn sang his praises. He went on to become permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland Office and in the Department for Health and Social Security.
Colleagues and observers agreed on Stowe’s virtues: he was modest, soft-spoken, direct, discreet and motivated by a commitment to public service. There was an acute sense of crisis in British government in the 1970s; at times various administrations seemed barely able to cope and some in Downing Street lost their heads. Stowe, however, was never flustered and recharged his batteries at the weekend at his Suffolk home. Making a point of not reading the Sunday papers (Wilson devoured the early editions on Saturday night) he would phone the No 10 duty secretary in the evening and inquire: “Has anything happened that I need to know about?”
He was born in Dagenham, Essex, the elder son of Arthur and Emily, and brought up on a council estate; he was educated at Dagenham County high school. A bright boy, he won a scholarship to study history at Exeter College, Oxford. He joined the civil service as an assistant principal in the National Assistance Board and rose through the ranks until its absorption into the Ministry of Social Security in 1966. In contrast to the high flyers in the Treasury and the Foreign Office, young Stowe would personally cycle to visit hard–up claimants. In 1968 the department was merged with health into a new “super” DHSS.
In 1973 Stowe joined the Cabinet Office at under-secretary level. Two years later, when it was time for Wilson’s PPS, Robert Armstrong, to leave No 10, Wilson ruled out a replacement from the Treasury, the usual source of recruits. The cabinet secretary, John Hunt, proposed a surprised Stowe, who spent a couple of hours failing to dissuade Wilson from appointing him because he was not from the Treasury and had never been a private secretary.
Stowe worked well with Wilson’s policy unit, an innovation at the time, and quickly won the respect of his aides. The Labour PM was already in decline, led a divided Cabinet, had only a tiny majority and was frequently distracted. Stowe knew well in advance of his intention to resign early and planned the timetable. He was also involved in the fraught negotiations over the resignation honours list (the much satirised Lavender List of 1976), which caused a furore because it included a smattering of business figures such as James Goldsmith.
Stowe was closer to Callaghan. He sat between him and the Liberal leader, David Steel, when the Lib–Lab pact was negotiated in 1977 and drafted the agreement between the two. He regularly attended the dinners Callaghan held with TUC and business leaders to discuss various economic issues and came to detest the regular menu of “bloody smoked mackerel”.
He was at Callaghan’s side through all the Cabinet sessions and the meetings with foreign leaders to hammer out the terms of the IMF loan, following a sterling crisis, in 1976. The relationship between the prime minister and the official was as close as any that existed in No 10. When Bernard Donoughue, head of the policy unit and an admirer of Stowe, once demurred at his presence during a private political chat with Callaghan, the latter retorted: “Ken is my ‘wait-a-minute’ man.”
Whitehall observers thought he held the machine together during the months of the Winter of Discontent (1978-79) when some ministers were in a funk over widespread strikes. He personally conducted many of the negotiations with Len Murray, the TUC leader. As the government collapsed into defeat, Callaghan came to rely on Stowe.
Nearly 30 years after Callaghan’s infamous “Crisis? What crisis?” remarks (according to the misleading tabloid headline) at Heathrow on returning from a summit on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to a Britain caught in the Winter of Discontent, Stowe made a confession to a Cambridge seminar. He said he owed Callaghan an apology for not going to Heathrow to meet him and remind him of Wilson’s rule: “Never get off a plane and make a speech.”
He spent a few weeks with the new prime minister, Thatcher, in 1979, helping to induct his successor, Clive Whitmore, into the job. His parting advice to Whitmore was to delegate. “You have some of the best young dogs in Whitehall so you do not need to bark.”
He went to the Northern Ireland Office as permanent secretary, an unusual appointment straight from No 10. Here he had to cope with the Troubles, including the Republicans’ hunger strike at the Maze prison. In 1980, Stowe was knighted. A year later he returned to the DHSS as permanent secretary. The “super” or “monster” department was responsible for more than a third of total public spending, including pensions and other welfare payments, hospital and community health services, employed 95,000 staff, was the subject of more than 100 debates in Parliament and around 6,000 parliamentary questions, and touched virtually every citizen. It was a huge management challenge. Thatcher later decided to split health and social services into separate departments.
Stowe was one of the first to identify many of the NHS’s problems, including the power of the medical profession, an ageing population and medical advances. An almost total reliance on taxation for funding and an over-centralised structure, he believed, meant that the NHS staggered from crisis to crisis. He likened his task to “plugging holes in dykes with a finger”. In an unpublished paper he spelled out the options for Thatcher. Having listened patiently, she finally told him: “Ken, there is no constituency for change.”
He retired in 1987 but became chair of the Institute of Cancer Research (1987-97), the Carnegie UK Trust’s inquiry into the third age (1989-93), and various committees on the voluntary sector. He attended reunions with former colleagues, including Callaghan’s No 10 aides, but in his late 70s retreated to Herefordshire and disappeared from the Whitehall network.
In 1949 Stowe married Joan Cullen. She died in 1995, and he is survived by their sons, Tim and Richard, and daughter, Janet.
- Kenneth Ronald Stowe, civil servant, born 17 July 1927; died 29 August 2015