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Jon Davis: Civil servants back in the driving seat

Posted by Eagle Eye
  • Sunday, 23 May 2010 at 12:30 pm

The return of Yes, Prime Minister to the scene is timely. For the loudest sigh of relief this month came from Whitehall. Not so much for the Con-Dem Nation assumption of power, though contrary to some New Labour ministers in 1997 the British civil service does look forward to a new government if only because a change can be as good as a rest (and new ministers can be putty in a grizzled mandarin’s hands). No, the almost palpable sense of joy emanating from senior civil servants can be encapsulated succinctly: ‘We’re back!’

The civil service was once thought of as the fourth service of the state after the navy, army and air force. For three decades after 1945 it enjoyed huge prestige, slyly embodied by Sir Humphrey Appleby and described by Rab Butler as ‘like a Rolls-Royce – you know it's the best machine in the world’. But British decline in the 1970s damaged the bureaucracy greatly.

Few people ever accused Mrs Thatcher of being a Trotskyist (certainly not to her face) but in terms of civil service reform she ushered in an era of perpetual revolution. Her wish to see it ‘deprivileged’ led to constant efficiency reviews, sackings and dismemberments which were enthusiastically followed up by her successor John Major. But it took the New Labour era, specifically the first two terms of Tony Blair, to drive the civil service down to its lowest ebb in the modern era.

There was an increased turnover of cabinet secretaries which saw Blair having four during his decade of power (Lord Butler of Brockwell, Lord Wilson of Dinton, Lord Turnbull and Sir Gus O’Donnell, right) compared to only six (including Butler) throughout the period 1945-1997. This was in some part due to Blair and his ministers’ deep frustration at the pace of change in the public sector.

For Blair tried to fundamentally change the role of the civil service from the traditional one of policy advice to project manager. The old idea that senior civil servants should be brilliant at writing beautifully structured policy documents (and complete the Times crossword in record time) but lacked the entrepreneurial skills necessary for the delivery of world class public services, was to be swept away with a new breed of bureaucrat. As Blair said in 1999, he bore ‘the scars on my back’ of attempting public service reform – ‘People in the public sector are more rooted in the concept that if it’s always done this way, it must always be done this way than any group of people I’ve come across.’

While it was understandable, indeed laudable, for Blair to try this, there was a crucial misunderstanding at the heart of his reform agenda. The civil service has always had the role of delivering public services – but it has also been the guardian of the constitution. In the absence of a codified constitution, we should be relieved that they have a ‘it must always be done this way’ mantra. To seek to dismantle the second role was misguided and dangerous. The stasis of civil service reform during the ‘events, dear boy, events’ Brown premiership was not entirely unwelcome after the hectic years of Blair.

Senior civil servants have resumed their role as the ‘continuity girls’ of the British constitution, ably and discreetly dispatching their duties making sure that the Queen’s Government carries on by providing high level secretarial support during the various negotiations along Whitehall. Furthermore, the whole political and economic scene was calmed before the election by the wise action of Sir Gus to agree and publish previously controversial conventions as to when a prime minister must resign after a hung parliamentary election. The ‘golden triangle’ of Cabinet Secretary, Prime Minister’s Permanent Secretary and the Queen’s Private Secretary proved their worth. Crisis was averted, the markets were stabilised and the civil servant’s thrill of non-recognition was preserved.

There may be greater thrills ahead. We now have coalition government between two parties who were just days ago describing each other as ‘jokes’. This will present its own stresses and strains but ones the civil service will relish. Providing the supporting processes for a coalition government will require both ingenuity and strength of character.  Making sure that all ministers in the coalition feel like they are being treated equally will of course be a task for the Prime Minister and his Deputy – but the civil service will also need to play a key role in ensuring the mechanics of the coalition process deliver equal treatment, or at least the impression of it.  There is little or no relevant experience in Whitehall of coalitions. The mandarins in the Scottish Government know the necessary intricacies and may well be a useful source of advice for their southern colleagues.  But the generation of civil servants who have joined under the relative stability of New Labour and huge parliamentary majorities will be particularly stretched.  The Cabinet Secretary and his permanent secretaries will need to show the sort of invisible visible leadership to their staff that only senior civil servants can.

This is what many, if not all, officials joined up for, to be at the centre, advising and serving ministers, right at the heart of government (as opposed to learning the ins and outs of a Job Centre+ in Teesside). As one senior official put it, coalition is going to be a ‘nightmare’ – accompanied with a wry smile.

Photo: DAVID ROSE

Jon Davis is Executive Director of the Mile End Group and Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London.