The British Empire Library

Head of the Civil Service: Biography of Sir Warren Fisher

by Eunan O'Halpin

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
Biographies and memoirs of Britain's top civil servants in this century, other than where they have also been ambassadors or colonial governors, have generally been less frequent than studies of politicians. Low of profile, high in discretion, the role of kingmaker rather than king, maybe just the dullness of routine administration, all play their part in the explanation. The public face of Sir Humphrey Appleby in "Yes Prime Minister" is the exception rather than the rule in Whitehall.

This is a biographical study of Sir Warren Fisher, one of the most powerful civil servants Whitehall has known in this century. The first holder of the post of head of the civil service in Britain and a major adviser on policy to every inter-war government from that of Lloyd George to Neville Chamberlain, Fisher made the most of the opportunity to exercise power and make his influence felt in foreign affairs and defence as well as in home affairs and civil service matters. For readers of this magazine, Fisher's special importance lies in his role as architect of what Sir Charles Jeffries once described as "the Magna Carta of the modern Colonial Service". This was the report on the system of appointments to the Colonial Service, presented in 1930. Technically known as Cmd.3554, in the event it was the watershed between the earlier days of recruitment through the patronage of the Private Secretary's office and a professional system of appointment by references and interviews. Henceforward the Civil Service Commissioners were to be involved in the nomination of members of the new Colonial Service Appointments Board.

Sir Ralph Furse, who was of course at the very centre of the Warren Fisher inquiry, devoted a whole chapter to it in his autobiography (1962). Furse does not feature in O'Halpin's index (though he appears all right in the relevant footnotes at pp.171-2), and the whole inquiry is allowed only ten lines by O'Halpin. Indeed, he does not seem to have consulted the Furse papers nor made much use of his Aucuparius: Recollections of a Recruiting Officer. But he does quote Furse's own guidelines: "Convince Warren and your battle is won". Furse did: and it was so. O'Halpin is better on Fisher's handling of the amalgamation of the Dominions and Colonial Offices in 1926. For once, Fiziar backed the wrong horse, in favouring Sir Hugh Clifford over Sir Samuel Wilson as the new head of the Colonial Office - probably the right choice, given Leo Amery's comment in his diary about Clifford being "too much of a bull in a china shop" as well as being "in a state of nerves from overwork". Fisher was more successful, though hardly less controversial, when it came to extending his empire over the Foreign Office by appointing his 'own' men. The story of the "Francs affair" and alleged corruption in the FO, in which Fisher was believed to be out for blood (rightly, and he got it) is well narrated, though once again it can be read in greater detail in Permission to Resign by Ann Bridge, pseudonym of the wife of Owen O'Malley, one of the diplomats at the centre of the scandal.

I have liked more on the 1930 Committee and on the 1926 CO/DO reorganisation must not stand in the way of the wider recognition of a first-class study of a first-class, if complex and controversial, civil servant - "fearless ... a volatile personality ... colourful but neglected ... quite exceptional ... a difficult colleague and an impossible subordinate", as Dr. O'Halpin presents him. It makes a first-class read, too.

British Empire Book
Eunan O'Halpin


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