Armstrong, William, Baron Armstrong of Sanderstead 1915-1980, civil servant and banker, was born in Clapton, London 3 March 1915, the elder son (there were no daughters) of William Armstrong, of Stirling, a colonel in the Salvation Army, and his wife, Priscilla Hopkins, also a Salvation Army officer. He was educated at Bec School, Tooting, and at Exeter College, Oxford, to which he won an open scholarship. He obtained first classes in both classical honour moderations (1936) and literae humaniores (1938).
Armstrong entered the Civil Service as an assistant principal at the Board of Education in 1938, becoming assistant private secretary to the president of the Board of Education in 1940. From 1943 to 1945 he was private secretary to Sir Edward (later Lord) Bridges [qv.], secretary of the War Cabinet, after which he moved to the Treasury. During the period 1949-53 he served as principal private secretary to three successive chancellors of the Exchequer, Sir R. Stafford Cripps [qv.], Hugh Gaitskell [qv.], and R. A. Butler (later Lord Butler of Saffron Walden), being responsible on five different occasions for the co-ordination of the contributions to the budget speech and to a considerable extent for the writing of it. To work so closely with three such different personalities and in addition to accommodate himself to a change of government in 1951 undoubtedly expedited his development as a civil servant and immeasurably broadened his outlook. At the same time Westminster and Whitehall were endeavouring to adjust themselves to the economic and social changes of the post-war world, to the emergence of the first European community, that for coal and steel, and to the increased tension between the Atlantic alliance and the Soviet bloc. It was a testing but exhilarating time for Armstrong to be so close to the centres of power.
He then became under-secretary to the overseas finance division of the Treasury where for four years, from 1953 to 1957, he had to handle external financial problems, in particular those of the sterling balances, after which he moved over to the home finance division until 1958. From then until 1962 he was third secretary and Treasury officer of accounts. When the Treasury was reorganized at the end of this period, Armstrong became joint permanent secretary in charge of economic and financial policy at the early age of forty-seven. It had always been obvious that he was a high-flyer, but even this was exceptionally rapid promotion. Responsible now for both the home and overseas finance divisions of the Treasury, which had been amalgamated, he had to handle the economic problems of the recession and to implement the policy for expanding the economy pursued by Reginald Maudling [qv.] when he became chancellor of the Exchequer in mid-1962.
The narrow defeat of the Conservative Party at the general election of 1964 and the formation of a Labour government led to the creation of the Department of Economic Affairs. This was the consequence of a widely felt dissatisfaction with the Treasury's handling of economic policy over a number of years. The tension which existed between the new department and the Treasury lasted until the department's abolition in 1969. Within a few weeks of taking office the government found itself facing a major financial crisis which was very largely a crisis of confidence. The governor of the Bank of England, Lord Cobbold, working closely with Armstrong, managed through the other central banks to mobilize the funds necessary to stabilize the situation.
In 1968 Armstrong was appointed head of the Home Civil Service and when the department at the Treasury responsible for the management of the Service was hived off to become the Civil Service Department he became its first permanent secretary. After more than twenty years' intensive activity at the Treasury during which he suffered not a little stress and strain, he was able to use his immense knowledge of Whitehall and his widespread experience of international affairs for the benefit of the Civil Service as a whole. As head of the Civil Service, the first not to be burdened with the work of secretary to the Cabinet or head of the Treasury, and permanent secretary to the Civil Service Department, he was able to devote all his skill and energies to the management of the Service he loved, and in particular to the implementation of the recommendations of the committee on the Civil Service chaired by Lord Fulton. In this wider field and freer atmosphere he blossomed and flourished.
He created the new Civil Service College, used it as a basis for greatly improved training in the Service, and introduced many innovations into methods of training. He brought about increased mobility of civil servants both between their different classes and between various departments. This was especially the case with those members with professional qualifications. He tried to spread his enthusiasm for modern methods of management and the equipment required for it throughout the Service. All this gave much encouragement to the newer and younger members of the Service as well as to those in the middle ranks. When critics complained that the Fulton committee's recommendations had not been fully carried out it had to be remembered that although he had the support of the ministers concerned he had to work against the inertia of the establishment including at times the Civil Service unions. This did not prevent him from opening up opportunities for civil servants to take part in discussions about current problems on radio and television and from participating in them himself. It was, as he saw it, an important aspect of open government.
In mid-1973 the Conservative government called together representatives of the employers and trade unions for discussions on a prices and incomes policy. Although nominally under the umbrella of the National Economic Development Council, the latter's secretariat took no part. The prime minister asked Armstrong to co-ordinate the work of the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, the secretary-general of the Trades Union Congress, and the permanent secretary to the Treasury in preparation for such meetings. This task he fulfilled admirably for more than fifty meetings. He was appointed not because of any mistrust of the Treasury, as has been alleged, but so as to allow the Treasury, representing all Whitehall departments, to play an equal part with the representatives of the CBI and TUC under a chairman who could concentrate on reconciling different views. It was moreover uncharacteristically foolish of Victor (later Lord) Feather [qv.], the general secretary of the TUC, to remark that Armstrong had become deputy prime minister, presumably because he sat next to the prime minister at conferences, something which is no more than a departmental official does for his minister. At no time did Armstrong exceed his functions as an official. He was trusted and admired by those who were present at that series of meetings. Unfortunately his health suddenly broke down early in 1974 and he was unable to take any further part in them. Later in that year he retired from the Civil Service and became a member of the board of the Midland Bank. In 1975 he was elected its chairman and on becoming chairman also of the Committee of London Clearing Bankers (1978-80) he played a major role in their collective campaign against the Labour Party's proposals for their nationalization. The chairmanship was a position he enjoyed although, or perhaps because, its circumstances were so entirely different from his own background, upbringing, and life's work.
Armstrong was unassuming, friendly, and approachable. Wise in judgement, he never attempted to force his views on those with whom he worked. Indeed his reticence made it difficult for those not closely involved with him to be certain of his personal position in the many crises with which he had to deal. He was first and foremost a public servant of the highest quality and the utmost integrity. His personal interests always came second.
Armstrong was appointed MVO (1945), CB (1957), KCB (1963), and GCB (1968). He was admitted to the Privy Council in 1973 and created a life peer in 1975. He received honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford (1971), Sheffield (1975), City (1974), and Heriot-Watt (1975); he was an honorary fellow of Exeter College, Oxford (1963), and of the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London (1977); and he was a trustee or member of many governing bodies.
In 1942 he married Gwendoline Enid, daughter of John Bennett, company director, of Putney; they had one son and one daughter. Armstrong died suddenly in the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, 12 July 1980.
Contributor: Edward Heath