Robert Armstrong was born in Headington, Oxford on March 30, 1927, and was educated at Eton and then Oxford before joining the public service. He quickly rose through the ranks to become the Prime Minister’s private secretary in 1970.
He served Edward Heath from 1970 to 1974 and Harold Wilson from 1974 to 1975. A knight in 1978, he was then cabinet secretary to the Thatcher government between 1979 and 1987.
Despite his successful career, Armstrong forever became associated with the phrase “being economic with the truth” for his role in the Spycatcher trial in 1986. The British government sought to ban the publication of the autobiography of the former senior officer from MI5 and Deputy Director Peter Wright. Wright wrote the book in Tasmania after his retirement, but its publication in the United Kingdom was banned after the government alleged that it had disclosed confidential information.
Armstrong was then sent as a key witness when the British government asked for a similar order in Australia. He was widely ridiculed in the British press for his ambiguous and seemingly misleading responses when speaking to Wright’s lawyer Malcolm Turnbull – later Australian Prime Minister. Armstrong became known for his definition of the difference between a lie and a misleading impression as “perhaps economic with the truth”. The phrase was coined by the philosopher Edmund Burke but was not widely used before the Spycatcher trial.
The government’s attempt to ban the book in Australia was unsuccessful, and publicity of the trial helped Spycatcher become a bestseller.
Turnbull famously compared Armstrong to Sir Humphrey Appleby, the obscurer and manipulator of the television series Yes, Minister.
Armstrong was named a lifetime peer in 1987 and served in the House of Lords as an independent crossbencher. From 1994 to 2006, he was Chancellor of the University of Hull and President of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation until 2013.
Armstrong recently said, “Operation Conifer [which investigated allegations of historic child sex abuse by the former PM] produces not the slightest credible evidence that Sir Edward Heath could have been guilty of child abuse and a lot of credible evidence to prove that he was not. “
He added that justice requires that he be accepted that Heath is not a child molester, and “puts Operation Conifer back in the dustbin of history.”
He was also firmly opposed to the UK’s decision to leave the EU, saying: “I fear that leaving the European Union is a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom and a threat to the peace process in Northern Ireland and our relations with the Republic of Ireland. “
Armstrong had two daughters with his first wife Serena Chance, whom he married in 1953. The couple divorced in 1985 and married Mary Carlow.