Ministers and Officials

Leo Pliatzky

  • The Government of the United Kingdom: Political Authority in a Changing Society by Max Beloff
    Weidenfeld, 438 pp, £6.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77618 5

This addition to the publisher’s ‘Modern Governments’ series is essentially a textbook for students, but it can be recommended to the general reader also as a well-informed and well-written guide to the constitution, the apparatus of government, Parliament, the political parties and the pressure groups. The expert on particular aspects of the subject would not look to a work of this kind in order to add to his knowledge: but he won’t find his expertise offended. The only half-criticism which I have on a point in my own field of expertise concerns the statement: ‘Some estimates would put the share of government in spending at about 60 per cent of GNP.’ It was the Treasury itself which at one time gave currency to this misconceived figure, but for the past few years the Government’s White Papers have adopted a corrected basis more in line with, though still a little wider than, the definitions used by the OECD. On this basis, public expenditure last year was 42 per cent of GDP at market prices. This point does not, however, materially affect the description of the size and growth of the public sector.

A book of this kind does not merely describe. It is also a commentary, and it develops a theme. The theme is change: the economic and social changes of the past two decades, during which Britain, while becoming generally more affluent, has also become a multiracial society with a high rate of inflation and higher unemployment than in the Fifties, and the political developments which have called into question the authority of the United Kingdom Parliament. In particular, its authority is seen as coming under challenge from our membership of the European Community, from the pressures for devolution, and from the use of the referendum, while the rule of law has been challenged through the use of violence in industrial disputes.

My own perspective on these developments is that of a bureaucrat who served until recently under a succession of Conservative and Labour governments. Over the past twenty years, we have had a change in the political complexion of the government every five years, plus or minus a year. This makes civil servants acutely conscious of the discontinuity of government at the political level in this country. One feature of this discontinuity is that, at election time, the process of policy-making is taken out of the government machine and handed over to the party machine. Even the ruling party’s manifesto is not drawn up by the Government as such, though Cabinet Ministers are involved, and the Prime Minister has a very big say in the manifesto – a voice which will be very much less influential, so far as Labour Prime Ministers are concerned, if the proposals of Mr Benn’s faction prevail. The Civil Service, though it helps the Government to frame and carry out their policies during their time in office, plays no part in drawing up the policies on which the politicians campaign for a further term of office.

As things have worked out, each government is committed by its manifesto to reversing the policies of its predecessors, and the erosion of consensus has become more marked in recent elections. In addition, changes of government in this country take place with particular abruptness. As soon as the election results are known, the losing party is out and the winning party is in. There is no period of handing over. I can remember, when I went over to No 11 Downing Street for a farewell drink with a certain outgoing Chancellor of the Exchequer, his saying to me: ‘Do you mind if we make this rather quick? I want to be out before X’ – the new Chancellor – ‘arrives.’ The sudden-death character of electoral defeat is one illustration – the behaviour of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons is another – of the fact that, while the conduct of the power struggle has been largely civilised in our democracy, it remains a power struggle, and sometimes a bitter one.

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