Whitehall: Tragedy and Farce 
by Clive Ponting.
Hamish Hamilton, 256 pp., £9.95, March 1986, 0 241 11835 2
Show More
On the Record. Surveillance, Computers and Privacy: The Inside Story 
by Duncan Campbell and Steve Connor.
Joseph, 347 pp., £12.95, May 1986, 0 7181 2575 4
Show More
Show More

These two books have very different targets. Ponting assaults the entire political and administrative apparatus, retail and in gross, while Campbell and Connor go for the army of snoopers and data-gatherers. What they share is a thought which would have shocked a previous generation of political commentators – the thought that the British Civil Service is absolutely not to be trusted, that the ‘mandarin’ element provides next to no restraint on the politician’s standing inclination to mistake self-interest for the national interest, and that ‘confidentiality’ has become a cloak for a political and administrative unwillingness to answer to the wretched public. The transformation of public attitudes effected by the activities of Mrs Thatcher and Sir Robert Armstrong can be estimated by contrasting the present cynicism about relationships between politicians and civil servants with, say, the absolute confidence of the generation of Hugh Gaitskell and Douglas Jay that ministers would feel no temptation to cheat and that if they had done so their civil servants would have stopped them.

Behind the old confidence lay a peculiar history. The idea of a civil service is an English idea, but its origins do not lie in England. The first ‘civil servants’ were the administrators of the East India Company’s ‘military servants’. It wasn’t only the label that distinguished them from their counterparts in early 19th-century Britain: because the government of British India was conducted at double arm’s length – the British Government controlled the East India Company, but not its everyday decisions, and the Company in London behaved in the same way towards its agents in India – its senior civil servants were in effect permanent secretaries in the modern sense. Palmerston thought of his foreign office as a place staffed by clerks who could write a good hand, but twenty years earlier, James Mill, Examiner of Correspondence at India House, was already like the permanent head of a 20th-century foreign office. He invented policy over a broad range, and when officials went out to knock India into a modern shape, it was James Mill’s idea of that shape that they went out to implement. When the Northcote-Trevelyan committee inquired into the reform of recruitment and training for government service in 1852, the Indian example was waiting, with all its implications – appointment on merit, opening up government service to people from all social classes, making sure that the education received by civil servants bore some relation to the work they would do. Moreover, the reformers insisted that if intelligent young men were to be recruited, they must not be used for boring and repetitive tasks but must look forward to having an impact on policy. The reformers won, and the English mandarin was invented.

But there has always been a tension between the demands of the straightforward management and delivery of services and the need to develop policy; a hundred and thirty years ago, the reformers’ critics couldn’t see why they had such elevated ambitions. With a minimal state, the discussion was surely only about clerks, custom officials, bookkeepers in the Treasury? Even today, as Clive Ponting points out, the attention of intellectual critics of government is excessively focused on a vanishingly small proportion of the whole body of civil servants: ‘The top three grades of the Civil Service – Permanent Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Under-Secretary – amount to just 650 people or about 0.1 per cent of the total. Even if everybody in the next two grades – Assistant Secretary and Principal – is included they still account for less than 1 per cent of the Civil Service.’ The contrast between the bustle of the overcrowded Writers Building in Calcutta and the calm of India House in London was hardly more striking than the contrast between the crowded misery of DHSS offices around the country and the surroundings in which ministers and permanent secretaries go about their business. Ponting’s attention is itself divided between the denunciation of the mandarins and their ministers and a rather more down-to-earth account of what hell it is to work in the average tax office, and in some ways it’s the latter that is the more impressive.

Managerially-minded politicians might well ask themselves if more would not be done for the welfare of Britain by sorting out the working conditions of the 600,000 on whom the intelligentsia do not cast their gaze than by sacking Bernard Ingham and forcing Mrs Thatcher to reveal the names and composition of all cabinet committees. For, on the ground, government services are in a shocking state. It’s a debatable question whether the claimants turning up to a hideous DHSS office to claim their unemployment benefit are very much worse-off than the clerks behind the counter. Ponting is a bit quick to blame the miseries of the staff at the bottom of the heap on politicking by bosses who resist rational reorganisation for the sake of their own prestige, but he gives a convincingly depressing account of just how grim conditions at the bottom can be. The offices shared by the DHSS and the Department of Employment at Elephant and Castle offer a particularly nasty example of low morale and low efficiency: staff turnover is 120 per cent per annum; the furniture is screwed to the floor so that claimants cannot throw it at the staff; neither the staff nor the claimants understand why help on apparently similar matters is sometimes given by the DHSS and sometimes by the Department of Employment, and if one office rings another to find out the odds are that nobody will answer the phone.

Ponting’s target is not merely managerial incompetence, but something much broader – what he sees as the intellectual and moral corruption of the administrative and political class of this country. This breadth of aim causes the major weakness of the book. Whitehall: Tragedy and Farce is less an indictment of remediable evils than a flailing assault on just about everything the author dislikes about 20th-century Britain, with not much argument to show that all the evils spring from the same source and can therefore be cured simultaneously. It is long on accusation – though it must be said that Ponting’s stories of mismanagement and worse are horribly persuasive – and short on analysis and reflection. If Britain is by German and Japanese standards an inefficient post-industrial slum, our politicians and administrators have no doubt failed to stop it. What is less clear – and it’s a question which Ponting never stops to ask – is whether there was very much they could have done about it, and if so when. Was there ever enthusiastic public support for the reforms needed to steer the country in a different direction? And as for his starting-point, Ponting never asks whether the British have done uniquely badly. Attitude surveys reveal the British as remarkably contented with their lot, though they know that in international terms they are sliding down the league tables of national wealth, income, longevity and productivity. This may reveal only our low expectations – but it may do something to explain why the public is so hard to arouse in the cause of political and administrative efficiency, and why it’s myopic to lash out at Whitehall rather than anywhere else. Ponting tells us a lot about the vices of Oxbridge-educated civil servants and politicians and leaves the impression that these vices are a peculiarly upper-class affliction. But are they? Does anyone suppose that the political and administrative habits of the Transport and General Workers would much improve the Civil Service? Even as a work of pure denunciation, the book suffers from a decent but disabling broadness of aim. Ponting never seems sure whether the enemy is privilege or inefficiency, and never sure, therefore, whether what we want is more efficiency or more democracy, and what we should do if we cannot have both. To suppose that the democratisation of the Civil Service and a greater openness in politics would automatically and everywhere increase efficiency is wishful thinking: it assumes a national political culture far more favourable to management and meritocracy than most observers suppose the British political culture to be.

Ponting resembles Cobbett confronted with ‘the Thing’: power is corrupting and corrupt; bad decisions are taken by wicked men; wicked men get into power partly because wicked men like power and become politicians, partly because the system of recruitment for the Civil Service is still in the hands of snobs from Oxbridge. Sometimes, he relaxes enough to admit that wickedness is less of a problem than idleness and incompetence – though both are well-known Oxbridge traits; and sometimes he goes so far as to admit that the problems are impersonal and organisational – a more rationally organised civil service might even survive Oxbridge recruits, if only it got properly trained ones, put them in the right jobs and took care to give them job-training too. This last is plainly right: indeed, there’s much to be said for following the French and bypassing the ordinary university system by creating our own version of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. But none of this gets followed through: the characteristic flavour of the book is moral indignation rather than detached appraisal of present inefficiency and of the alternatives to it.

The anger is fair enough: whatever Ponting’s merits and demerits as an analyst of political and administrative in-fighting, he has had a rough time at the hands of his employers, and it’s expecting a lot of human nature to suppose that a man could be dragged through a trial under the Official Secrets Act, and collect all the abuse Ponting did, without feeling embittered about senior civil servants and their political masters. But apart from his own, hardly typical experiences, too many of Ponting’s insights into the misdeeds of politicians seem to be culled from Richard Crossman’s Diaries, and it’s hard to think of any source less reliable, or more likely to put one off politicians for life. Crossman was a bully and a cheat, and proud of it, and his Diaries simply boast of his misbehaviour. Clive Ponting has obviously led a sheltered life, and aside from a few unfortunate months in the Ministry of Defence has been spared encounters with old-fashioned unmitigated bounders. The tone of Whitehall: Tragedy and Farce unfortunately reflects the fact. Cobbett too often gives way to an injured whining.

That there is much to complain of, nobody can deny. Ponting piles up cases where nobody emerges with credit. Some exemplify the politicians’ well-known habit of demanding reforms in opposition which they then refuse when in power: the history of official secrets legislation (otherwise known as the case of the missing Freedom of Information Act) since the failed prosecution of Jonathan Aitken in 1971 is perhaps the best-known, but Ponting reminds us how many Home Secretaries refused an enquiry into how Timothy Evans came to be hanged for a murder he did not commit, and of the refusal by successive governments of both parties to negotiate in the open about the terms on which compensation was to be paid to the owners of nationalised ship-building firms. The innumerable idiocies involved in the building of Concorde, the delays and deceits surrounding the eventual (and all but inevitable from the outset) choice of Stansted as the site for the third London airport, are other familiar pieces of mismangement. Ponting is at his acidly well-informed best in his detailed account of the way in which plans for a new school of music for the Armed Forces were messed about by a combination of political pressure and service lobbying: ‘after three years’ work originally intended to save money and improve efficiency, the Ministry of Defence ended up with a plan to spend more money to put a new school disliked by all three Services at a politically convenient location that had originally been rejected by Ministers.’ One of the few things to be said for inflation is that in cases like this costs rise so alarmingly that lunatic decisions are often quietly forgotten, as this one seems thus far to have been.

What Ponting fears more is not just the disorder of bad administration but a pervasive corruption when no decisions are taken for avowable reasons and almost everything hangs on political expediency. Events since he wrote only reinforce his case. Who, for instance, believes that the timing of the publication of the report of the Select Committee inquiry into the Westland debacle was anything but a ruse to get the Government out of trouble? Who supposes that the publication of the statistics showing the worsening health of the poor and the growing gap between the mortality rates of different classes on the day of the royal wedding was fixed with an eye to anything but avoiding a hostile press and Parliament? So used have we become to the Government treating us like gullible idiots that we are scarcely shocked by it. Ponting’s aim is to wake us up to the cynicism of our rulers. If he is more than a little naive in the outrage he displays and less than deft in both analysis and prescription, he is emphatically on the right side.

On the Record is more narrowly focused, but more professionally done – as one would expect from its authors. It is a survey of the liberticide potentialities of a well-organised national database – i.e. a computerised card index to everything anybody knows about everyone. Bit by bit, such a database is coming into existence, as organisations computerise their records. It is true that it is coming into existence slowly. The Swansea Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre was supposed to be a model of computerisation but has been a disaster from the outset; the DHSS has long had ambitions to computerise medical records, but has so far spent a great deal of money without achieving a workable system. None the less, nobody supposes that these are more than hiccups: the pace at which computer technology advances means that the hardware and the software of databases which are simultaneously enormous, swiftly accessible and user-friendly are mostly with us already and will be relatively cheap within a decade.

Campbell and Connor take off from the so-called Data Protection Act which comes into effect next year; everyone who keeps information on anyone else in a computer-readable database is obliged to register as a user, so that the subjects of such information can see and if necessary correct that information. This means that everyone with a home word-processor on which he or she stores references for students or colleagues is supposed to have registered with the Data Protection Registry – fee £22 for three years – by 11 May this year. In a country in which gratitude for small mercies is well-advised, we should be grateful for the chance to find out whether credit agencies are telling lies about our hire-purchase histories or insurance companies have us confused with the well-known arsonist of the same name – and from 11 November 1987 we shall be able to do just that.

The trouble as always is that the people whose information on us is most likely to be detrimental to our health are the very people who are not going to be caught by the Act – namely, the Government and the Police. Campbell and Connor point out the potential for trouble rather than the actuality of it, but there is no doubt that the potential is great. Adults with driving licences have, to all intents and purposes, identity cards already, since it is an offence to use a licence with an out-of-date address. Plans to equip us with new medical cards containing our medical histories in optically readable form will catch the entire population in the system. It is not yet easy to get different databases to communicate with one another, but it is not long to the day when it will be possible for anyone with the appropriate reference numbers and keying instructions to look up every bit of information held by the Police, the DHSS, the Inland Revenue.

The obvious question is why anyone should mind. If you haven’t been cheating the Inland Revenue, what does it matter that your tax inspector can discover how many times you’ve left the country? Campbell and Connor know this is the obvious question, and they answer it twice. In the first place, too much of the supposed information is not information but speculation and misinformation. The famous episode of the Thames Valley Police computer shows what happens when you try to collate every rumour that policemen on the beat pick up: your database becomes an electronic version of Mrs Riley’s scullery, rife with unreliable whispers. More importantly, we cannot trust our government with the information if it is reliable.

This is the crux of the problem. Most European countries keep closer track of their citizens than does Britain; the Dutch and Scandinavians live relatively happily under a closer scrutiny than we do. The explanation is in part that they have a much tighter legal control of administrative behaviour than we have, so that the potentially liberticide features of their administrative system are kept in check. Britain has, on the whole, relied on governmental impotence to preserve freedom, and has long been regarded as very odd by Continental writers on law and politics for so doing. Part of the explanation must also be that the domestic politics of at any rate Scandinavia and Holland are unaffected by aspirations to great power status, so that the anxieties of spy-hunters and security services have a less poisonous effect on policing. Part, presumably, lies in the fact that the social consensus on the merits of liberal democracy is stronger there than here.

The problem in Britain seems once again to raise the question of whether we do not need a much more explicit freedom of information act, and some equivalent of a bill of rights to back it up. In principle, it is surely Luddite to stop the collection and collation of information which is genuinely needed for the benefit of individuals or the safety of their neighbours. It is, however, no more than a respect for individual privacy to go to all necessary lengths to ensure that the information collected is not gratuitously offensive, nor available to every policeman, social worker or DHSS investigator who cares to turn on his or her terminal and rummage. It is easy to despair of the ability of the courts to control government and the Police, but there is no point in despairing before the experiment has been properly tried. Advances in data-processing techniques won’t go away, and neither will the paranoia of the Special Branch and the prurience of DHSS investigators. Since, as Campbell and Connors demonstrate at length, the Data Protection Act is too small a mercy to be very thankful for, let us ask for more. If we are to move into an age of largely American technology, we might as well borrow their bloody-minded determination to use all their constitutional resources to control it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences