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.

In France, since De Gaulle’s great achievement in restoring stability of government, there has been a high degree of continuity over this period In Japan, the Liberal Party, which is, in fact, a right-wing conservative party, has been in office throughout. In Canada also, the Liberals, whom I think of as Heath-type interventionist conservatives, have been in office with only a short break. In Germany, a long spell of Christian Democrat ascendancy has been followed by a substantial period of office for the Social Democrats, and the change from one to the other did not involve any sharp break in domestic policies. In the United States, Democratic Presidents have alternated with Republican Presidents. Since posts which in this country are held by senior civil servants are political appointments in America, a change of President entails a great clear-out of senior officials On the other hand, there is an even greater consensus between the two sides than there is in Germany about the basic features of the economy and society they want to promote. Issues such as nationalisation of industrial democracy are simply not on the agenda. Moreover, there is a hand-over period of two months during which the elected President takes over from his predecessor.

So we have an exceptional degree of discontinuity of policy in this country, though we do not have the hiatus in experience and administrative expertise at official level which affects the United States after a post-election clear out. It is against this background that the role and performance of the higher Civil Service has to be evaluated. It is true that the sharpness of the contrast between a Labour government’s policies and a Conservative government’s policies has tended to become increasingly blurred the longer the government stays in office. In a recent lecture entitled ‘Manifestos and Mandarins’, Mr Tony Benn attributes this to the power of the Civil Service: so far from being biased in favour of one party or the other, the Civil Service has, as he sees it, its own Civil Service policy. This is ‘an amalgam of views that have been developed over a long period of time, and in the development of which the civil service itself has played a notable role. It draws some of its force from a deep commitment to the benefits of continuity and a fear that adversary politics may lead to sharp reversals by incoming governments of policies devised by their predecessors, which the civil service played a great part in developing.’ ‘Thus,’ he argues, ‘when the civil servants see a new government come into power with a policy that goes outside the consensus [i.e. one based on the objectives of full employment and welfarism] there is anxiety at the possible effect upon their policy; and plans are laid that would have the effect of containing this new surge of political power ...’

This is a view which has now gained some currency on the right as well as on the left. The authors of this book write ‘that Labour politicians and commentators will always be tempted to blame an “elitist” civil service for impeding socialist policies,’ and ‘that Conservative administrations will allege that civil servants have a vested interest in preserving collectivism ...’ It is a view which Professor Beloff himself has done something to encourage in another context – in a lecture delivered to a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in October 1979, on the occasion of the Conservative Party Conference, which was later printed as a pamphlet on ‘The State and Its Servants’. He cites evidence that Foreign Office officials during the war were biased against victims of Nazi persecution and withheld material while they successfully worked for the reversal of a decision intended to help some of these victims. While recognising that ‘we have little comparable documentary evidence for more recent years and for matters of domestic policy,’ Professor Beloff comments that ‘it seems highly improbable that very intelligent and ambitious men ... will refrain from using their influence and perhaps even their power, in order to impede or at least delay the execution of policies which they honestly believe are not in the national interest.’ He also states his belief ‘that there is a new dimension to the problem when what the government wants is something that will decrease the area in which civil servants operate and lead to a reduction in their numbers and importance.’

My own view is that there is no need to invent a ‘civil service policy’ or to assume obstructionism by civil servants in order to explain why governments change tack while in office, and my experience indicates that, while civil servants do, of course, seek to influence Ministers – it is part of the role of an adviser to do just that – they do not attempt to mislead or obstruct them. Least of all do they attempt to argue against the carrying out of a clear political commitment. It would be foolish to say that there cannot have been any instances at all of behaviour of that kind, just as I cannot say without qualification that senior British civil servants are incorruptible, since there was, to my knowledge, during my 32 years in the government service, one solitary case of dishonesty by a central government senior official. But I believe it to be true that one general characteristic of our central government service is its financial integrity, and that another is its commitment to serve the elected government of the day.

The running-in period immediately after a change of government is a sensitive stage in relationships between Ministers and officials. While it is true that civil servants think of themselves as providing the element of continuity – and anyone who has had to deal with a new United States administration in its running-in phase will appreciate the value of that I do not believe that, at policy level, the Civil Service is against change as such, as distinct from being professionally cautious about the reliability of schemes (in the same way that surveyors and solicitors are professionally cautious). It is also true that civil servants who have seen the collapse of earlier policies which did not take sufficient account of the practicalities and the real constraints of the situation will be sceptical about new policies which are generated primarily by the confrontational nature of party politics. But it has sometimes seemed to me that, in the early days of a new government which has a mandate for such policies, civil servants are more liable, for constitutional reasons, to soft-pedal their doubts than to exaggerate the difficulties. In general, however, relationships soon settle down, subject always to the chemistry of personalities, and the constitutionalities work well enough. The norm is that declared policies are carried out, with the active support of the official machine, though the details of a scheme are liable to be considerably affected by a dialogue with administrators and legal advisers, by the reactions of Parliament, and by the amount of public money available when the time comes.

There is, of course, a good deal of infighting in Whitehall, but characteristically between or within Departments rather than between officials and Ministers. A reasonable degree of trust between officials and Ministers seems to me quite essential, because senior Ministers are grossly overburdened – for reasons on which this is not the place to dilate – and it is the function of officials to enable them to cope with the excessive demands on their time. Mr Benn puts great stress on the fact that top civil servants are appointed by the Prime Minister, which he sees as militating against their loyalty to their departmental Ministers, but it is in practice exceptional for departmental officials to work to the Prime Minister or to have any contact with him at all.

Although outright policy U-turns have tended to occur only in a limited number of areas, some of those which have occurred have been spectacular. A reversal of policy in foreign affairs such as the retreat from Suez is obviously a question of yielding to external pressures. In domestic affairs, the famous U-turns have concerned the management of the economy, and these, too, can be explained in the first instance by economic factors external to Whitehall, and only after that by reference to Whitehall’s response to them. To believe otherwise seems to me to take a Berkeleyan view of events as depending on ideas, whereas the contrary is nearer to what happens.

Ever since the war the causes for concern about the economy have been the same: industrial productivity and output, industrial relations, a reducing share in home and overseas markets, employment, inflation, and – until North Sea Oil – sterling and the balance of payments. And in spite of the polarisation of manifesto policies, an underlying common commitment to the objectives of high employment and welfarism did persist for much of this period. It is not surprising, therefore, if successive governments were driven back to similar policy responses, including bursts of high spending interrupted by expenditure cuts, intervention in industry designed to promote growth and productivity, and, above all, some form of incomes policy. The big question is whether the present government will succeed in its objective of breaking this pattern.

As regards the Civil Service, the essential question is whether, with a greater or lesser degree of movement in and out at various levels, we should stick with a service mainly manned by people who make it their career and do not identify themselves with any political party. The discontinuity of government at political level seems to me to reinforce the case for a service of this kind, rather than to provide a case for a politicised service.

The book under review refers to the high proportion of Oxford and Cambridge graduates in our higher Civil Service as well as in successive Cabinets, and the authors write: ‘If recruitment to élite positions is based on criteria which are no longer acceptable to society at large or if the persons recruited to them hold values which are out of phase with those of the wider society, then the basis of the whole political order may be undermined.’ Nevertheless, in his pamphlet, Professor Beloff rejects the American spoils system and supports the pure doctrine of open competitive examinations (without too much weight given to interview procedures), and it is in this kind of competition that Oxbridge candidates in practice do very well, whatever the weight given to interview procedures. So long as Oxford and Cambridge go on attracting people of high calibre who then seek careers in the public service, it will be more sensible to think in terms of making the best use of them than in terms of some sort of discrimination against them in the recruitment arrangements. But whatever university they come from, if there is a danger that the values of policy-making civil servants may be ‘out of phase with those of the wider society’, this may arise less from their family backgrounds or their education than from their spending the whole of their working lives in the Civil Service, possibly in a single department, though many have more varied careers than that. In some departments, officials may deal a lot with people from industry, but that is not the same as having experience of industry. They may very well have no contact at all with the world of politics except in the person of their own Minister.

What this indicates is a need, not for more training or more courses at the Civil Service College – all of which is probably already overdone – but for a greater diversification of experience in the course of a civil service career. Some moves have already been made in that direction, but systematic diversification of experience will be a long process involving a lot of practical difficulties. While the training and career development of civil servants is a subject worth some attention in its own right, I do not believe that it is in any way central to the present problems of the government of the United Kingdom. Whether we are to have another decade or two of discontinuity in government policy seems to me a much more serious matter.