Lord O’Donnell spoke to Year 12 students as well as our Gifted and Talented pupils from Year 7 to 10 about his transition from Economics to Politics and his various roles, from being a lecturer in Political Economy to joining the Treasury economist, working at the British Embassy in Washington and then at the International Monetary Fund. He illustrated to his attentive audience that these were not necessarily the jobs he always saw himself doing and described how he found himself in these roles, even when (in one such instance) he was the least preferred candidate. Lord O’Donnell expressed the view that sometimes it is how you present yourself that is important, on top of qualifications and experience, and explained that: “despite being bottom of the list of applicants, I was able to persuade my potential employers that I was the right person for the job.”
Lord O'Donnell served as Permanent Secretary of the UK Treasury from 2002 to 2005 and as Press Secretary to Prime Minister John Major from 1990-1994, where he was close to several major events in British political history. As official spokesman he was closely involved with the first Iraq War in 1991 and had first-hand experience of the historic Belfast Agreement, (also known as the Good Friday Agreement), reached in multi-party negotiations and signed in 1998. He also recounted the day in 1991 when the IRA launched homemade mortar shells at 10 Downing Street, in an attempt to assassinate Mr Major and his War Cabinet. Lord O’Donnell recounted: “luckily the shells landed in the garden and didn’t hit number 10 directly; otherwise I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
Between 2005 and 2011 he served as the Cabinet Secretary, and head of the Civil Service under three Prime Ministers; Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Showing a photograph given to him by Mr Cameron on the day of the election result in 2010, Lord O’Donnell informed the students of the traditional first briefing issued by the Cabinet Secretary after the Prime Minister enters Number 10. This consultation includes telling the PM details of the UK nuclear programme as well as all the current known threats of terrorist activity.
Lord O’Donnell took a range of thoughtful, intelligent and pertinent questions from our students on both political and global subjects such as Brexit, the possible implications on the UK leaving the free trade union, US President Donald Trump, the Northern Ireland border question and, (with particular significance to some of our 6th formers), whether or not ‘Drill’ music should be banned by the Government.
The ex-Salesian pupil left current students with the following piece of advice to consider: “... pay careful attention to those who are honest to you ...”