Monday, April 16, 2007

On Defence Secretaries

All the news today (well, some of it) is about Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence and whether he will get out of the mess caused by the recent Iranian hostage crisis.

I think a look at the history of the office he holds is likely to provide the answer.

There are basically two types of Defence Secretary: those who use the position as a stepping stone in their cabinet career and go on to much bigger and better things, and those for whom it is the high water mark of their political life and who disappear without trace after they leave the job.

In the first category there have been many luminaries over the years: Denis Healey (1964-70) went on to be Chancellor, Peter Carington (1970-74) became Foreign Secretary and then Secretary-General of NATO, Michael Heseltine (1983-86) was later Deputy Prime Minister, Malcolm Rifkind (1992-95) was another who ended up at the Foreign Office, George Robertson (1997-99) also went off to the top NATO job, and most recently John Reid (2005-6) who has been, er, a big hit as Home Secretary.

One could also mention Michael Portillo, who was Defence Secretary before he lost his seat in 1997 and has since (albeit after a brief return to the Commons) carved out a reasonably successful career in the media.

In contrast, the second type of Defence Secretary is best exemplified by John Nott, who filled the post from 1981-83. Nott famously walked out of a TV interview when Robin Day described him as a "here today and ... gone tomorrow politician". He was "gone" fairly soon afterwards. One could also include the fairly anonymous George Younger (1986-89) or Fred Mulley (1976-79) in the same bracket. Here's Wikipedia on Mulley:

He is best remembered for falling asleep during the Queen's Jubilee Review of the Royal Air Force at RAF Finningley in 1977 when there was considerable noise around him. Having a small sleep during exercise was referred to by members of the RAF as having a "Fred Mulley".
The question we ask when we look back at these politicians is not, "How did well did they do?" but, "How on earth did they ever become cabinet ministers in the first place?"

We will soon find out what type of Defence Secretary Des Browne is, but I suspect most of us already know which category we would put him in.

p.s. Am I the only person who finds the "e" on the end of "Browne" really annoying? I find it very hard to trust people with superfluous vowels on the end of perfectly normal names (e.g. Greene, Clarke, Cooke, Foxe, Younge etc).

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