He was first private secretary to the Liberal reformer in the Department of Labor, Roy Jenkins, and then, between 1970 and 1975, of a Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and of a Labor, Harold Wilson. He was appointed permanent secretary (the highest civil servant in the ministry) at the Ministry of the Interior between 1977 and 1979, before reaching the summit of Whitehall, the post of secretary of cabinet, post which he occupied between 1979 and 1987, most of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s post.
It was during the Thatcher period that the name Armstrong became known worldwide when, in 1986, he appeared as a key witness in the so-called Spycatcher trial, when the British government was trying to prevent the publication in Australia of memoirs of Peter Wright, a former MI5 officer.
In the witness room of the Sydney court, Armstrong came out with a phrase that made headlines around the world. The phrase was “economic with the truth”.
Wright’s lawyer, Malcolm Turnbull, asked him why he wrote to publishers Sidgwick & Jackson, saying that Thatcher wanted a copy of a book on Chapman Pincher’s MI5 when he was already in possession of the manuscript. The letter, Turnbull suggested, “contains a lie.” Armstrong replied, “It was a misleading impression, it does not contain a lie. I do not think so. “
Turnbull: “What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie? “
Armstrong: “A lie is a direct lie. “
Turnbull: “What is a misleading impression, a kind of curved lie? “
Armstrong: “As one person said, it may be economical with the truth. “
He stressed that the phrase was not his – it was first used by the philosopher Edmund Burke, he told the court. But it was too late.
Armstrong’s response in the Sydney courtroom betrayed a lack of understanding, or at least experience, of the outside world. Comments that may well have been applauded at Pall Mall clubs may not necessarily be appreciated on the street.
Armstrong firmly believed that officials should remain silent until the grave. A duty of confidentiality for life was even more necessary, he thought, when it came to members of the security and intelligence agencies. In his affidavit to the Sydney court, he insisted that the publication of Spycatcher was likely to cause “non-quantifiable damage”. But the government has lost its cause.
Of all his political masters, Armstrong earlier developed a particularly close personal relationship with Heath. They shared a deep love and knowledge of music. Both were accomplished pianists. Armstrong liked to recall the evening of October 28, 1971, when Heath obtained a surprisingly healthy majority of 356 to 244 votes in favor of entry into the European Community, or the Common Market, as it was more widely known, a success than Heath considered his greatest political achievement.
Back at 10 Downing Street, Heath walked past his staff, recognizing them briefly, but without saying a word ascended to his clavichord to play the first prelude to Book 1 of Bach’s Well Tempered Keyboard.
After Heath’s death in 2005, Armstrong became the first president of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, a position he held until 2013. He strongly defended Heath when, more than a decade after his death, the former prime minister has been charged with child sexual abuse. Armstrong called the move “shameful” for the Wiltshire police’s decision to discuss his investigations at a press conference. He added, “You usually detect a certain sexuality. I have never heard a whiff of sexuality about Heath, whether women or children. He was completely asexual. He had a girlfriend, a copy of the photo of his girlfriend at his bedside. She left with someone else. “
Born in Headington, Oxford, Robert was the son of organist and principal director of the Royal Academy of Music Thomas Armstrong, and his wife, Hester (née Draper). He was educated at the Oxford Dragon School in Eton, where he was a King’s Fellow, and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied classics and philosophy. It was an elitist and privileged education.
It was also a traditional route to the foothills of Whitehall’s corridors of power via the Treasury – the fact that he studied the classics rather than economics was no obstacle to a successful career. Far from it, and it is to the Treasury, the most influential of the ministries, that Armstrong first made his mark, starting as deputy director in 1950.
Yet Armstrong will always be identified the most with the Thatcher years, as an eminent gray who was the happiest in the shadows, advising the Prime Minister on the need for secrecy and urging his Mandarin colleagues in Whitehall to take a firm stand against the leaks.
However, he was put in the spotlight as he was caught in a series of spectacular Whitehall crises. When asked to investigate the Westland helicopter case in 1986, he concluded that Leon Brittan, the Secretary of Commerce and Industry, had released a letter damaging the Secretary of Defense, Michael Heseltine, without saying that Thatcher had known about the scheme from the start.
A member of the Commons defense committee later asked her whether Thatcher’s remark to deputies that she had given consent for “accurate information to fall into the public domain”, she said, was in contradiction with the official version of events. Armstrong admitted that her remark “did not coincide” with an earlier statement in which she stated that her agreement was “neither requested nor given”. He explained, “My understanding is that it would be a slip of the tongue. “
The defense of Armstrong’s official secrecy has led him to assert an absolute constitutional doctrine to prevent government officials from publicly denouncing or challenging government policy. Stung by the acquittal of Clive Ponting, accused of breaking official secrets law for sending details of the movements of the Belgrano, the Argentinian cruiser torpedoed by a British submarine during the Falklands War, he rejected the defense lawyers’ argument that defense officials could appeal above heads of ministers to “the public interest”.
He quickly issued new guidelines on the duties and responsibilities of public servants. Public servants can be “Crown officials,” he said, but added, “For all practical purposes, the Crown in this context means and is represented by the government of the day.” He continued, “The public service as such has no constitutional personality and no separate responsibility from the duly elected government of the day.”
In other words, public servants had no direct constitutional connection to Parliament and could never appeal to a primary “public interest”.
Thatcher did not always accept his advice. He told her that Jimmy Savile should not receive chivalry on the grounds that, “things were not quite what they should be.” He noted that Savile had not attempted to deny press reports of his private life, that he had slept with many women while participating in charity events. Armstrong’s instinct turned out to be correct.
He was a warmer, more sensitive man than he let the public – or many of his professional colleagues – appreciate. He also had a dry humor. He also disclosed an encyclical he sent to senior officials in Whitehall deploring the leaks. When the journalist, now a director, Paul Greengrass, raised this question in an interview with Granada TV World in Action, Armstrong replied, “I was very sad that it took six weeks to flee. I was hoping it would leak much sooner than that. “
He was knighted in 1978 and became a lifetime peer 10 years later, after his retirement, serving in the House of Lords as a crossbencher. In addition, in 1998, he was appointed president of the administrators of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the assistant of which was his Oxford contemporary, Sir Michael Butler, former ambassador to the European Community. Armstrong and Butler were also both members of the British section of the Trilateral Commission, sometimes described as a private discussion group for people who run the world.
He has been appointed non-executive director of many companies, including BAT Industries, bankers NM Rothschild and Sons, Rio Tinto, Shell, Lucas Industries, Carlton Television and the Bank of Ireland.
But it was the music that mattered most to him outside of his life in Whitehall. He was secretary then member of the board of directors of the Royal Opera House from 1968 to 1993. He said once that he had tried to write his cabinet minutes in sonata form, with an exhibition, a development section , a recap and a coda.
As a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, he chose musical manuscript paper, pencil and paper as his luxury.
In 1985, he married Patricia Carlow, and she survives him with his two daughters, Jane and Teresa, from his first marriage to Serena (née Chance), which ended in divorce.
• Robert Temple Armstrong, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, civil servant, born March 30, 1927; died on April 3, 2020