Bridges, Edward Ettingdene, first Baron Bridges 1892-1969, public servant, was born at Yattendon Manor in Berkshire, 4 August 1892, the third of the three children and the only son of Robert Seymour Bridges [qv.], later poet laureate, and his wife, (Mary) Monica, daughter of the architect Alfred Waterhouse [qv.]. His education followed a classical pattern, which equipped him admirably for the career which he was to adopt in later life. In 1906 he went to Eton; and in 1911 he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, where he gained a first class in literae humaniores three years later. He had intended to read history after his first degree; and, to the end of his life, the interests and concerns of scholarship claimed a large part of his affection. But the war abruptly ended any thought of an academic career. He joined the 4th battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and served as adjutant and captain until he was wounded on the Somme in March 1917; and, after being awarded the MC, he held a temporary post in the Treasury until he was fit to return to active service.
At the end of the war he passed the Civil Service examination and returned to the Treasury as an assistant principal. Although he was a fellow of All Souls from 1920 to 1927, he seems finally to have decided to resist Aristotle's injunction that the contemplative life should be rated more highly than the practical; and the next twenty years were spent in learning the ways of Whitehall and acquiring that expert knowledge of the machinery of government which was to serve him so well during the culminating years of his career. At that date the Treasury was responsible not merely for budgetary and financial policy but also for the administration of the public service; and Bridges' early years in Whitehall were devoted to learning the intricacies of principle and practice which governed the control of numbers, grading, and conditions of service in the increasingly complex machine of modern government. The skill which he acquired in these matters was reinforced by successive appointments to several departmental inquiries and royal commissions (including the royal commissions on police powers, 1928-9; the Civil Service, 1929-31; and lotteries and betting, 1932-3); and by a subsequent period of attachment to the Estimates Committee of the House of Commons.
In 1934 he became an assistant secretary; and in 1935 he was appointed to be head of the Treasury division which controlled expenditure on the supply and equipment of the armed forces. It was in the following three years that his powers of organization first became fully apparent. The need for greatly enlarged expenditure on rearmament had at last been acknowledged; and the normal criteria implied by orthodox Treasury doctrine were required increasingly to defer to that need. But economic solvency was no less vital to the nation's survival; and in so reshaping the machinery of Treasury control as to maintain a reasonable balance between those conflicting claims on national resources Bridges showed a pragmatic flexibility of judgement which was to become his most outstanding characteristic.
In 1938 he succeeded Sir Maurice (later Lord) Hankey [qv.] as secretary to the Cabinet, the Committee of Imperial Defence, the Economic Advisory Council, and the Ministry for the Co-ordination of Defence. The cumulative burden of these appointments was eased when (Sir) Winston Churchill became prime minister and the responsibilities which Bridges had inherited from Hankey were divided. Sir H. L. (later Lord) Ismay [qv.], who had been deputy secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence under Hankey, was appointed an additional member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in 1940 and became, in effect, the prime minister's principal staff officer when Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain. It was Ismay, therefore, who carried, throughout the war, the immense burden of acting as the unique link between Churchill and the chiefs of staff, both in the formulation of global strategy and in the conduct of major military operations. To Bridges fell the less glamorous, but no less vital, task of harnessing the whole of the intricate machinery of government to serve the war effort. The conflict was so different from the war of 1914-18, both in nature and scope, that he had little in the way of precedent to guide him. But to each task—whether the concise recording of the discussions and decisions of a Cabinet which would meet at any hour of the day or night; or the creation of new and unorthodox administrative machinery to deal with the wholly unforeseen problems which the war created; or the mobilization of the morale of a public service required to work for long periods under almost intolerable conditions of strain—he brought the same indomitable energy, the same fixed determination to master the odds against him. It was typical of this quiet but resolute confidence that, at an early stage in the war, he should have found time to arrange for the commissioning of its official history, a work which, as he realized, would not be finished until many years after the war had ended. And the same concern for the longer term was evident, on a larger scale, in the care which he brought to the creation of machinery, notably the Ministry of Reconstruction, to prepare for the eventual transition from war to peace.
Initially, Bridges' relations with Churchill were not wholly easy. The prime minister was wary of an official recruited from the ranks of the Treasury, which he regarded as at least partly responsible for the pre-war procrastination in mobilizing the country to meet the growing Nazi menace. But he quickly came to realize the superb administrative ability of his Cabinet secretary. And he would surely have agreed that his success in guiding the nation to ultimate victory owed not a little to the untiring service of Bridges and Ismay, who, although men of very different temperaments, shared a common devotion to their great leader and shouldered, between them, the immense responsibility of translating the inspired poetry of his directives into the plain prose of effective action. Bridges has left his own testimony to the great prime minister in his contribution to Action This Day (a collection of memoirs by six public servants who worked closely with Churchill during the war, edited by Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, 1968); and it is matched by Churchill's generous, and illuminating, tribute to Bridges in Their Finest Hour (volume ii of The Second World War, 1949), where he describes him as a man of exceptional force, ability, and personal charm, without a trace of jealousy in his nature. All that mattered to him was that the War Cabinet Secretariat as a whole should serve the prime minister and War Cabinet to the very best of their ability. No thought of his own personal position ever entered his mind, and never a cross word passed between the civil and military officers of the Secretariat.
But Bridges did not serve only on the home front. His concerns and responsibilities extended to the oversight of the whole of the intricate network of international relationships which sustained the British war effort after the United States and the Soviet Union entered the war. The negotiation of the Lend-Lease agreements, the organization of supplies to the Russian theatre, the creation of such novel posts as British ministers resident in North and West Africa, the preparation of complex and sensitive briefs for the British teams at the critical Allied conferences at Yalta and Potsdam—all these required his attention; and all benefited from his experience of brigading diverse, and not always harmonious, interests into a common purpose.
As a result, when Sir Richard Hopkins [qv.] retired as secretary to the Treasury in 1945 and Bridges was appointed by Attlee to succeed him, he brought to the post an unrivalled knowledge of the changed position which Britain would henceforward occupy in an international community which had itself changed, in some ways beyond recognition, since 1939. This was particularly true of British relations with the United States. Bridges never had any doubt about the primacy of this relationship in any realistic inventory of British interests; and it was he who, at the turning point in the negotiation of the vital post-war American loan to Britain, was dispatched to Washington to break the deadlock which had developed between the two parties about its precise terms and conditions. Two years later, when it became necessary for the United Kingdom to suspend the convertibility of sterling which it had been one of the main purposes of the loan to promote, it was again Bridges who finally persuaded a reluctant chancellor of the Exchequer that this step was inevitable. In each case he achieved his end not by any display of economic or financial expertise, which he gladly left to others, but by a genuine comprehension and acceptance of the altered status of Britain in the world, combined with the kind of irresistible common sense best exemplified by the question which was, for him, the acid test of any decision—Have you a better alternative? It was a test before which, more often than not, the experts fell silent.
He brought a second category of experience from his wartime service to the administration of post-war Britain—a knowledge, acquired at first hand, of the resourceful flexibility of the British administrative machine under pressure, coupled with a shrewd appreciation of the constitutional and practical limits to that flexibility. In 1945 new prophets were abroad in the land, J. M. (later Lord) Keynes [qv.], Sir W. H. (later Lord) Beveridge [qv.], and a whole generation of scientists and technologists, to whom the war had given enhanced status. These prophets preached novel, and not always consistent, doctrines. But they had a willing audience in a public which was anxious to end the austerity of the past six years and had been encouraged to believe that the new doctrine of economic growth would enable them to move forward into a world of full employment and a rising standard of living. By one means or another the Government of the day was expected to realize these aspirations as rapidly as possible; and it fell to Bridges to devise the machinery which would enable it to discharge this task. As early as 1942 he had subscribed to the view that, if the machinery of government was to match the problems of the post-war world, it would need to be overhauled well before the war ended. But his approach to the problem was essentially pragmantic—difficult questions, he once wrote, are solved by good sense, not by definition; and he had no enthusiasm for an inquiry on the model of the committee on the machinery of government chaired by Lord Haldane [qv.] at the end of World War I, purporting to be based on logical principles of administrative methodology, which, if correctly applied, would impose order and coherence on the most intractable administrative confusion. He was concerned to produce a machine which would work effectively in the actual conditions of a post-war world as he foresaw them; and his contribution to the deliberations of the committee chaired by Sir John Anderson (later Viscount Waverley) [qv.], which was established in 1942 to review the machinery of government against the day when peace would return, was determined largely by his realization of the unprecedented scope and nature of the problems which the war would bequeath to the years thereafter. When Bridges took charge of the Government Organization Committee towards the end of 1946, he knew that one of its most urgent tasks would be the construction of integrated administrative machinery capable of formulating the national economic plan proposed by the Labour Government and operating the controls required by that plan within the constraints of Britain's post-war balance of payments and the novel disciplines imposed by the new international economic and commercial order. He brought to the task a fund of massive common sense, combined with an unrivalled knowledge of what the machinery of Whitehall could, and could not, do. And, as he led the public service through the successive economic crises of 1947, it was very clear that he had no equal in promoting the kind of interdepartmental collaboration which was to play an increasingly important part in post-war administrative history.,č2Igs$mL7iA'µAG^4#˙But, although he was inevitably concerned with immediate problems for some years after the war, the longer-term future of the public service had its fair share of his attention and concern. He realized, almost instinctively, what needed to be done. Professional economists and statisticians were introduced into the Treasury for the first time; departments were encouraged to draw more readily on scientific advice and to include scientists and technologists among their regular staffs; following on the recommendations of the committee chaired by Ralph Assheton (later Lord Clitheroe), systematic schemes of training for civil servants were introduced and their pay and conditions of service were progressively improved; and, within the necessary limits of financial prudence, the Treasury was encouraged to adopt a liberal attitude to its functions of financing the universities and exercising the State's new patronage of the arts. By the time of his retirement in 1956 Bridges had laid the foundations of the public service as it was to be in the second half of the twentieth century; and the achievements of later reforms, notably those recommended by the committee on the Civil Service chaired by Lord Fulton (1966-8), would have been impossible without his pioneering work. In 1964 he published a book on the workings of the Treasury.
If, untypically, Bridges had looked back and tried to evaluate the result of his years in Whitehall, he would certainly have disclaimed any pretension to radical greatness. He was essentially an unassuming man, who disliked the affectation of importance in others as intensely as he would have despised it in himself. He had a great sense of fun and a keen sense of the ridiculous; and he often took an impish delight in deflating the more pompous members of the official community. But it was always done without malice or rancour; and it reflected an impatience with anything that was superficial or irrelevant to the task in hand rather than any assumption of moral or intellectual superiority. His own principles were high and strongly maintained; and the habit of his daily life was simple and unaffected. But he made no attempt to impose his personal views on others; and he ruled Whitehall by example rather than by precept. It was essentially an example of strenuous endeavour. He was a tireless worker, who brought to every task an intense concentration of effort to establish the facts of a situation, to judge the direction in which they pointed, and to ensure that the conclusion of the debate which they had occasioned was promptly and effectively translated into action. His style of administration did not conform with the conventional ideal of an effortless superiority which transacts business from a clear desk by vigorous delegation with the minimum of personal intervention. He was an artist rather than a craftsman; and he established his mastery over his material by immersing himself in it and moulding it to his purpose rather than by subordinating it to any specific technique or expertise. This did not always make for economy of effort; and his light would often be burning in Whitehall long after all others had been extinguished. But he set an example of sustained expenditure of strength and stamina which evoked an instant response from all who worked for him; and the unfaltering leadership which he provided during the darkest days of the war attracted a respect and affection transcending the normal loyalties of Whitehall.
He remained, however, an essentially private individual, who had few close friends outside his family and guarded the intimacy of his personal life very jealously. He retained a devoted memory of his father and spent much of his spare time ordering his letters and papers. But he seldom spoke of him and made no attempt to claim any share in his reputation. The integrity of his own character was his sufficient reward; and the homespun virtue, which he wore like a piece of honest, durable, worsted cloth, was his surest cloak against the wind and weather of the world of public affairs.
Retirement in 1956 brought a change in the pattern of his life but no relaxation in his service to the public interest. He was chairman of the National Institute for Research into Nuclear Energy from 1957, of the Fine Arts Commission from 1957 to 1968, of the British Council from 1959 to 1967, and of the Pilgrim Trust from 1965 to 1968. In 1963 he was appointed to preside over the commission on training in public administration for overseas countries. From 1945 to 1965 he was a member of the governing body of Eton; and he was also much concerned with higher education, being chairman of the board of governors of the London School of Economics and Political Science from 1957 to 1968, chancellor of Reading University in 1959, chairman of the Oxford Historic Buildings Fund in 1957, and from 1960 to 1962 chairman of the commission appointed at Cambridge to study the relationship between the colleges and the university.
Bridges' work was rewarded by many honours. He was appointed GCB (1944), GCVO (1946), privy councillor (1953), baron (1957), and KG (1965). He received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London, Bristol, Leicester, Liverpool, Reading, and Hong Kong; he was elected to a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1952, an honour which gave him particular pleasure; and he was an honorary fellow of All Souls and Magdalen Colleges at Oxford, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and of the Royal Institution of British Architects.
In 1922 Bridges married Katherine (Kitty) Dianthe Farrer, daughter of the second Baron Farrer. They had two sons and two daughters. Bridges died at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford, 27 August 1969, and was succeeded by his elder son, Thomas Edward (born 1927).
A portrait of Bridges by Allan Gwynne-Jones was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1963.
Lord Bridges in Action This Day, ed. Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, 1968
Sir John Winnifrith in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. xvi, 1970