Published: Thursday, April 27, 2000
EPISODES IN CIVIL SERVICE HISTORY VI - The Sackings of Gregory and Bullock
Though, like any profession, the Civil Service has its rogues as well as its fools, its strongest critics acknowledge a high standard of probity and care for public service. Just as well; sticky fingers near to the nation’s cash flow, or bent minds advising Ministers would soon undermine much else.
Rightly, the Courts are particularly severe on breaches of trust by a civil servant. This has been so as long as time, as it must be and we’ve seen some recent cases. But two defining events took place 70 or so years ago, worth recalling.
The standard universally accepted was penned by Sir Warren Fisher in his 1928 report on the so-called Francs Affair :- "not only honest in fact, but beyond the reach of suspicion of dishonesty". Don Gregory, a senior Foreign Office official with a fairly fruity private life found his mistress sued by a firm of currency brokers for a considerable speculative debt. It came out that Gregory himself had been gambling in the currencies of countries with which he did official business, and had lost the tremendous sum of £20,000 - near enough a million pounds in today’s values.
Quite likely, tippling in currencies was fairly widespread among the Foreign Office personnel of the day - one who was certainly involved and was subsequently asked to resign pointed out that "there is no rule against civil servants buying and selling anything" - nor in those days were there general sanctions and rules against insider dealing.
Gregory nevertheless was arraigned and dismissed, though cleared of using official information to his advantage - of which, obviously enough, there had been none. Fisher’s famous words as Chairman of the Court were incorporated in a Treasury circular and are still in force.
Eight years later occurred the strange case of Sir Christopher Bullock. A man of brilliant youthful academic achievement and manic self-regard, nicknamed "Napoleon Bullock" by his less thrusting contemporaries, he bulldozed his way to the Permanent Secretaryship of the Air Ministry at age 39. Fisher described him as "a very clever young man…and singularly gifted in rubbing people up the wrong way" - not least the dinosaurs of the then military and air establishments.
Having grabbed power, Bullock developed so strong a wish to join the fat cats that he no fewer than three times asked Imperial Airways - a firm dependent on the Air Ministry - to make him a director, at the same time hinting strongly that its Chairman could be in line for a peerage. This was not the only firm to which he made comparable advances; and, to compound his errors, he developed a habit of briefing Opposition groups against his own Ministers from public telephone boxes, without effectively concealing this.
Bullock himself saw little wrong with his conduct, believing himself animated throughout by the public interest. He told Fisher’s Board of Enquiry that his intention has been to improve the management of Imperial Airways. Possibly his self-belief was not displaced, though he was unwise enough to flatter and then ignore the firm’s Chairman, the brass -faced Sir Eric Geddes whose axe has bitten so deeply into the Civil Service after the First War. Indeed, throughout his dizzy flight to perdition, warnings and hints as to alternative ways of going on, bounced off Bullock’s hide like tennis balls off a rhinoceros. Dismissed, he continued to bluster and threaten his way to the hearts of successive Heads of Civil Service - to such effect that his case was re-examined several times without favourable result.
Bullock, though in no way dishonest, rather the contrary, fell foul of the Fisher circular in the grand manner. There was nothing sneaky about his ferocious assault on the twin bastions of fortune and notoriety, and it is probably to the Civil Service’s credit that it preserved a bad conscience about the brutality of his sacking by Fisher. It is nice to record that he did at length succeed in the business career he probably should have embraced at the outset, and was the subject and presumably author of possibly the most orotund entry ever to have been accepted by Who’s Who. Like him, his son Richard Bullock achieved high rank in the Civil Service.
When Sir Christopher Bullock died in 1972, the Defence Department’s Permanent secretary and numerous officials attended his memorial service; the Prime Minister was represented, and Sir William Armstrong memorialised him in The Times. No other sinner against the Civil Services most sacred texts has ever been treated quite like that , albeit when dead. The Civil Service, contrary to popular belief, can be the hardest, most unrelenting and even most brutal of taskmasters; but it retains a halting sense of justice, a retentive folk memory, and a kind of heart.
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