Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Of Pygmies, Civil Servants and Politicians

It's not often I get a chance to use that wonderful word 'disingenuous' but it's totally appropriate in the case of Sir Chritopher Meyer's defence of his recent memoir revelations. This is the man, remember, former ambassador to Washington, who wrote slightingly of Blair's readiness to accept the full nine yards Bush package on Iraq without cavill and who, whilst good on the 'vision thing' lacked the grasp of detail that would have made Thatcher and Major ask for considerably more than nothing in exchange for their support. He compounded his offences against the establishment by deriding a number of now senior ministers-Straw, Prescott, Hoon- as 'pygmies', out of their depth in Washington who were overawed and not up to the expectations of their hosts.

The reactions? Some wounded souls at once demanded his resignation from his job as Chair of the Press Complaints Commission, Blair allegedly called him a 'prick' and a bevy of diplomats, present and past, believed Meyer had breached the relationship of confidentiality between civil servant and politician which lies close to the heart of the British system of government. Meyer himself said he would not resign and that the politicians were being hypocritical as they were publishing revealing memoirs all the time. Now this is where my seldom used word comes in. Sir Christopher must know that the comparison is false. Politicians are in the business of having and publicising opinions by way of appealing to the public for support. It follows that their memoirs will reflect a good deal of this and their views on colleagues into the bargain.

The crucial difference for a civil servant is the role played by them in the British constitution. Sir Humphrey and his ilk are in theory wholly devoted to the anonymous advising of the representatives of voters, providing the expertise required for the elected politician to do his or her job properly, in the public interest. It is argued, and with some force, that such advice has to remain confidential for it to be effective. It is rather like the doctor patientor lawyer-client relationship. They have an obligation to keep their advice private and certainly not to use this delicate nexus to advance their own careers as authors once retired. Rubbishing serving ministers is wonderfully entertaining for political gossip junkies like myself and most of Fleet St, but it might well compromise future advice to ministers and cannot be compared with politicians' memoirs. Jack Straw, one of those calling for Mayer's PCC head said he was not upset by what Meyer said about him (' a man to be liked rather than admired') but was more upset by his revelation that, when serving him as Press Secretary, he used to meet up in the Major's bedroom when he was walking around in his underwear while Norma sat up in bed reading magazines. Now THAT's disingenuous!

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