Max Nicholson

The Civil Service reacts to the publication of "The System" in 1967

Extract from "The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, Vol 2, by Richard Crossman"

Sunday September 24th 1967
In the evening I was telephoned by Harold Lever who told me he'd been asked to appear on "The World at One" to represent the Civil service and defend the Treasury against the attack on it which Max Nicholson launched in his new book "The System". Max, of course, is an old friend from PEP days in the 1930s and I saw something of him when he was Permanent Secretary to Herbert Morrison who, as Lord President of the Council, was in charge of such things as Science and the Research councils.

"The System" which I read in the Dordogne, is a tremendous onslaught on the Civil Service and, in particular, on the mandarin mind. This, he thinks, is the product of mods and greats at Oxford, which teaches one abstract philosophy and ancient history, and is based on the assumption that a mind trained in such abstract and remote subjects can apply itself to every modern problem with assurance of success.

"The System" got a tremendous write-up in the Sunday papers which gave me a great deal of pleasure since it is nice to see someone else being blamed for our problems apart from the Labour Government. So when Harold Lever rang up, I said "Why on earth are you going to speak?" "Well" he said, "I am the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and therefore it's my job to look after the Civil Service. I've been asked to do this by Sir Laurence Helsby". "That's all right," I said "but for heaven's sake don't start attacking Max Nicholson because he provides invaluable propaganda for the government. What you should do is to refer to the Fulton Commission on the Reform of the Civil Service and say that it's doing a radical job of work, and somehow indicate that we know in advance that the things which Nicholson suggests are wrong." He didn't sound very convinced when we said good-bye.

Monday September 25th
.... I mentioned Harold Lever's radio broadcast. Why on earth is he getting himself into that?" asked Harold (Wilson). And when I told him that Helsby had drafted him in, Harold remarked, "For heaven's sake, I hope he's not been anti-Nicholson, considering the assistance Nicholson's giving to us.

Tuesday September 26th
In the red box, I found a text of the Lever broadcast. It was a complete white-wash of the Civil Service and a violent attack on Nicholson......(Harold Lever said) that he was so keen to make his radical reforms in taxation that we wanted to win the confidence of the Treasury by helping them with this broadcast and so endearing himself to them.