‘The ultimate public servant’: Lord Gus O’Donnell’s memories of Queen Elizabeth II from his time at the heart of government

By on 11/09/2022 | Updated on 20/09/2022
A picture of Queen Elizabeth II
Photo: Royal Family Twitter account

Queen Elizabeth II “embodied public service”, former UK cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell has said, as tributes to the UK’s longest-serving monarch, who has died aged 96, continue to pour in.

Speaking to Global Government Forum about his memories of the Queen from his time in the civil service, which culminated in six years as cabinet secretary until 2011, O’Donnell said the Queen was “the ultimate public servant”.

“Until literally two days before she died, the Queen was doing her duty, saying goodbye to a previous prime minister and welcoming a new one. So I think that gives you a sense of her commitment to the job, and my personal experiences with her really back that up.”

Recalling his own time in government, O’Donnell said that in addition to the Queen’s weekly audience with the prime minister, the cabinet secretary would keep in touch with Buckingham Palace as needed. Negotiations around the formation of the coalition government after the 2010 election returned a hung parliament was one period in which he was liaising closely with the Palace.

“I remember in particular the coalition period when it was potentially quite tricky, because the Queen could have been dragged into politics. We – myself and Sir Christopher Geidt [now Lord Geidt] who was the Queen’s principal private secretary – were very keen to keep the Queen above politics, and not to be seen to be siding with one possible political grouping who might take over or another. And she was very grateful for the help and work that we did.”

Following this, O’Donnell invited the Queen to attend the famous ‘Wednesday morning colleagues’ meeting when all the permanent secretaries – the heads of departments – in the UK civil service meet. She also helped facilitate the hosting of the annual UK Civil Service Awards at Buckingham Palace in 2010.

“We had the awards ceremony in Buckingham Palace, which was amazing, and she came and spent a lot of time there, and so did Prince Philip,” O’Donnell recalled.

“She really understood about public service and that people were sacrificing higher salaries that they could have got elsewhere, but were committed to helping the public, just as she was.”

O’Donnell’s other recollections include accompanying the Queen on her 2011 trip to the Republic of Ireland, the first by a UK monarch to the country.

“That was itself symbolic – it was 100 years on from when George V had gone there in 1911, when it was, of course, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, before the Republic was formed.

“That was an amazingly successful trip and amazingly important for cementing the Good Friday Agreement, which was to me a very personal thing because I’d worked with John Major on that and then I’d seen Tony Blair take it forward. It was a great thing that prime ministers made a big impact on, and she was cementing it all.”

This was crystalised when, after a formal dinner at Dublin Castle, the Queen opened her comments by greeting the Irish president Mary McAleese and friends in Irish. “You could see president McAleese was very, very taken by that,” O’Donnell recalls.

The trip also allowed the Queen to indulge her famous love of horses.

“She really wanted to go to Ireland, because there are lots of stud farms there, and she’s incredibly knowledgeable about horses and I should tell you that I know absolutely nothing about horses,” O’Donnell said.

“So she went off and saw various stud farms there and was just delighted, and met the people of Ireland in a very friendly environment. I think the security services of both the UK and the Republic did an amazing job – it never felt threatening where I was sitting, and she was greeted with great warmth everywhere. I think she really deserved that acclaim.”

Key to the Queen’s public service was the regular audiences with prime ministers. Former prime ministers John Major and Theresa May have been sharing memories of these occasions since the Queen’s death, but O’Donnell said “the one thing I can tell you about them is I don’t know anything about them – in the sense that they never leaked and no prime minister told me any great details about what happened during the audiences”.

He added: “What I do know is that they all found it incredibly helpful. It was in a sense a therapy session. There aren’t many times a prime minister can have a really honest conversation about all the really tricky things that are going on with somebody else, and know that it won’t leak. I think that was a source of great strength and I think prime ministers found it incredibly useful.” It comes back to the point that the Queen “got the nature of public service”, O’Donnell said. “She embodied it, so for all of us, she’s very, very special.”

Read more: ‘She exemplified selfless leadership’: world leaders pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth II

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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