Friday, October 13, 2006

 

Is Sir Humphrey still Hoodwinking his Ministers?

Students of British government have had a perrennial obsession with whether our permanent super-clever Oxbridge educated civil servants(like Lord Robin Butler pictured) regularly outflank their temporary ministers often of limited or inferior ability. The fact that 'Yes Minister'-a sit-com predicated precisely on this fraught relationship- had sold to so many countries worldwide suggests this is not merely a parochial national concern.

David Blunkett's diaries today suggest that the very similar sounding complaints made by Crossman, Benn and Castle in their diaries have not gone away. At a Cabinet meeting in February 2002, Blunkett laid into the mandarins:

'We have a situation in my department where virtually anything of any importance is leaked. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate is a complete shambles. The only reason we got a police reform white paper and the reform of immigration, nationality and asylum was because the two respective advisers worked extremely closely with me on them ... The civil service are very lucky that we can't sack them, that no one can sack them" - with the implication that they damn well would be sacked if I had my way, and they would be. At the end of all this diatribe Tony said: "Well, I think Richard Wilson's got the message. You really love the civil service, David. You've got a lot of time for them and you believe they're doing a first-class job" - and everybody just doubled up.'

Yesterday Blunkett's diaries claimed civil servants often foiled intended action by submitting excessively long and 'obscurantist' briefing documents on such topics along with inflated costs they claimed the Treasury would never accept. It all sounds a bit- no, a lot- Sir Humnphreyish and one wonders if:

a) such complaints have a genuine basis in fact? Civil Servants, from my brief sojourn in it, only do such things when they feel their departmental interests are threatened.

b) Blunkett was a headstrong minister who they felt needed restraining on some issues? Not impossible I'd say.

c) Blunkett was indecisive and civil servants merely filled the vacuum- the usual situation when civil servants 'manage' their minister but this seems highly unlikely as well.

d) his blindness made it easier to pull the wool over his unseeing eyes. You decide, but he must have become used to countering this sort of thing.

Or maybe we do really have a civil service which feels so threatened by a Labour government- which side-steps established procedures and listens more to special political advisers than the established servants of the crown- that it wilfully imposes its own agenda where it thinks it can get away with it? Or is this just the standard whinging of politicians who fail to achieve their objectives and cast around for scapegoats?

Comments:
If one believes the politicians (Crossman et al), then shouldn't we citizens be grateful? We have a highly educated, meritocratic elite (the Sir Humphreys) trying to run the country, despite having to serve third-rate demagogues elected by the ignorant, fickle masses. I'm sure Plato would have approved of our system. Every time I hear a politician moan about the civil service, I feel a little more comfortable. On a kind of related matter, regardlesss of the substance of what he said, was our top general speaking out of turn? I thought it was the military's job, like the civil servants, to do what the politicians tell them. They can moan all they like behind those Whitehall doors, but I'm a little uneasy when they start making public statements. Furthermore, listening to him on the Today programme, there were moments when he was clearly straying beyond the Iraq thing and referring to threats to our society and way of life at home. It reminded me of a recent episode of Spooks!
 
KM
I once suggested such a ine to a senior civil servant and he answered that the nation would be much less well governed by him and his ilk. When it comes to political judgement and strength of will, they tend not to match 'real' elected politicians
 
Philosophical objections to KM aside (of which there are many), the empirical evidence speaks for itself. For centuries Britain was run by a "highly educated, [vaguley] meritocratic elite", and our country was less efficient and just because of it.
 
SPL
Not sure that before the Northcote -Trevalyan reforms our admin elite was that meritocratic, actually. More like nepotistic, self agrandizing and addicted to sinecures.
 
"Just" is a subjective term. I wouldn't say the society we live in today is "just", especially not if you are white, middle, male, hetersexual and able bodied. I would be quite intrigued to find out how you think Britain was less efficient.
 
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