[A-List] UK state: "modernisation"
Michael.Keaney at mbs.fi
Sun Mar 10 23:36:49 MST 2002
This is a significant intervention by the former editor of The Guardian
(1975-1995), who remains on call to fill space with largely irrelevant
and unreadable columns. However, on this occasion he is expressing, with
due homage to populism, the New Labour intention to "modernise" the
state apparatus by further neutering the autonomy of the civil service,
a process begun by one of only two UK politicians to have properly
understood the Civil Service -- Margaret Thatcher (the other being Tony
Benn). Unlike Benn, however, Thatcher and Blair have not subjected the
service to democratic control, but have instead asserted "Crown
prerogative", i.e., centralised decision-making even further in the
office of the prime minister. Thus Parliament's largely irrelevant role
and the ever-increasing role of patronage, as New Labour placemen are
appointed in place of those once appointed for their Conservative Party
credentials and who have not blown with the wind. The corporatisation of
the British state proceeds apace.
The era of Sir Humphrey is over. Squash the mandarins
Ignore civil service pleas that it is fighting a mob of evil spin
doctors, says Peter Preston.
Monday March 11, 2002
Sir Humphrey Appleby, lest you forget, was not some modern Whitehall
creature. It's well over two decades since he first began stitching up
the hapless Hacker on TV. And Hacker, in so far as he was anything to
begin with, was probably a gimmick-prone, ideologically challenged
Labour hack. (New Labour ahead of its time.) Other boots, other feet.
But we do forget. The mood music of the Wilson and Callaghan 60s and 70s
- usually with Barbara Castle leading the chorus - was all about a
conniving civil service bent on burying socialism and any prospect of
fundamental reform. Whitehall, in that time of failure and thwarted
ambition, wasn't a superb service industry, the answer to every
challenge. Whitehall was the problem, not the solution: the conservative
See what a difference a quarter of a century makes. Now it's streamlined
Hackers like Stephen Byers who are the phantom menace; now it's
steel-toothed hackerettes like Jo Moore who make Sir Humphrey cringe.
The Appleby texts, in their serpentine evasiveness, may not have changed
much. ("I was not accountable - but I was responsible," as Sir Richard
Mottram told the public administration committee last week. "Events
sometimes catch you out.") What has changed, though, is the supposed
balance of power.
We are solemnly invited to rally behind an embattled mandarin class -
even to pass a new act of parliament which bulwarks that class's sacred
role. We are solemnly instructed to cherish neutrality as though it was
the holy grail of parfit administration.
That may be necessary for the outcome of the stale tale which involves
thousands of evil spin doctors waging war on the highest standards of
public service. But it is also, historically and practically, the most
terrible twaddle (or ****ing twaddle, as Mottram might say in one of his
Pause over the facts. Our government, at the last count, had employed a
mere 80 or so special advisers roaming the corridors, serving ministers
one-on-one. They are pitted against well over 3,000 top civil servants,
who live "in fear" of their interventions and importunate demands. It
doesn't sound much of a contest, does it? The numbers of outsiders
involved are puny. The expertise they bring doesn't usually extend far
beyond a certain knowingness in media relations.
What, then, is the fuss about - a fuss which reaches far beyond Ms Moore
into draft legislation and the inquiry officially launched by the
committee on standards in public life? There must be a crisis because
there is so much fuss.
In any other walk of public life, I guess, a sceptical Hacker and
Appleby would know exactly what to make of this debate - because they'd
know they were being set up. Police chiefs complaining about
neighbourhood security guards, headteachers complaining about classroom
assistants, RMT drivers complaining about Aslef - they'd see the angles
coming from bleak experience. They'd know, at least in part, what this
protective racket portended.
Here, however, the racket-makers wear dark suits and darker looks. They
belong not to a common or garden trade union, but to the grandly titled
First Division Association. Their paid representatives come down from
the mountain tops of probity to defend them. They assert the existence
of threat, and feel no need to soil their hands with proving it. They
can set the retiring cabinet secretary dancing to their tune, voicing
his belated alarm. They can outmanoeuvre a prime minister by exposing
his weakest link: fear of unpopularity in the polls. The 80 interlopers
- the security patrollers and classroom assistants in this game - are to
be corralled and limited by statute. The battle against marauders is
Oh, excellent Humphrey! A sordid dust-up in a cubbyhole called the
Department of Transport press office and bigger issues go begging.
Victory has seldom seemed so sweet. And yet there are much bigger
issues. Why, for instance, should the first division 3,000 be spared the
scrutiny which normally accompanies disappointment?
This is the age for kicking bureaucrats - in Brussels, in local
government, in the health service. "Faceless" pen-pushers carry every
can. Yet not, apparently, in Whitehall. When grave men are fielded to
observe how far the Blair boys have strayed off course, their spokesman
is a retired permanent secretary from the permanently retired Min of Ag.
Yet nobody lays the disasters of BSE or foot and mouth anywhere adjacent
to his door, just as nobody blames Health for NHS sickness or Education
for the endless exam disasters. Mandarins can be blamed for not spending
ministers' money fast enough: otherwise, seemingly, they're in the
Everyone close to the action privately acknowledges that some
departments are weaker than others. Education always has been and always
will be weak. Who, with ambition, wants to work there? Health is
becoming a similar graveyard. Transport and local government don't go
together, a jerry-built monstrosity. And anyone who deals - day-to-day -
with Whitehall press offices recognises instinctively the need for a
better kind of spin doctoring: these regular, neutral guys are mostly
journeymen and women. Not even Nationwide League.
There's no cause for blame here, of course. How could there be?
Governments come and go, and all - out loud or under their breath -
agree that private management must have its public place: in schools,
hospitals, local provision. But curiously, apart from a few star
signings, that does not apply to the most elevated public management of
the lot. There may be a whispered shortage of talent: that's why
Whitehall salaries are heading for the £200,000 mark (with increasingly
a pension to dream of). But there is no crisis of confidence; nor any
thought that a machine running on empty for too long needs to be traded
Thus the aftermath of the Byers debacle (like the debacle itself) is
almost impossible to follow. It asserts a success for the system which
Mottram's "events" in no way bear out. It claims virtue for a neutrality
which doesn't exist. It holds - uniquely in British life - that what was
good for the 20th century must, unchanged and unquestioned, be good for
More twaddle. The question about special advisers is why, in a complex
age, governments need them. The question about press departments is why
they aren't better at their job. The question about governance is why
politicians are so shy of shifting the focus where it needs to be (that
is, not always obsessively on themselves). And the question about the
committee of standards in public life is whether - run by an
ex-mandarin, as so much in this life is - it can break the mould of
Too many questions, Humphrey? Too much smoke and too little fire?
There, there minister - time to lie down while I order you a nice cup of
Full article at:
Mercuria Business School
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
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