Lessons for Civil Servants

David Marquand

  • The Secret Constitution by Brian Sedgemore
    Hodder, 256 pp, £7.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 340 24649 9
  • The Civil Servants by Peter Kellner and Lord Crowther-Hunt
    Macdonald/Jane’s, 352 pp, £9.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 354 04487 7

The Civil Service attracts so much foolish, ignorant and malicious criticism that the unprejudiced observer is apt to assume, on the principle that mine enemy’s enemy is my friend, that nothing much can be wrong with it. After all, an institution which manages to upset Mr Tony Benn, Lady Falkender, Mr Michael Meacher, Mr Joe Haines, the editor of the Spectator and the sub-editors of the Daily Express cannot be all bad; and from there it is a small step to conclude that it must be all, or nearly all, good. The step is a dangerous one, however, and readers of these two attacks on the Civil Service will have to be on their guard against taking it. Both attacks are sometimes silly and sometimes unfair. Both advocate, or appear to advocate, dangerous solutions to non-problems. Yet in both there are shrewd hits as well as misses, and both focus attention on one of the central problems of modern British politics.

Brian Sedgemore’s is by far the sillier and more dangerous of the two, but it is also more entertaining and politically the more significant. Mr Sedgemore was Labour MP for Luton in the last Parliament, when he was probably the most intelligent member of the Tribune Group. He was also Tony Benn’s PPS, until in a characteristically lumpen display of intolerance and pique, Mr Callaghan insisted that he be dismissed, as a punishment for having asked Denis Healey questions about a confidential Treasury paper during a meeting of the House of Commons Expenditure Committee. The Secret Constitution is his revenge. It consists of a rather incoherent discussion of the power relationships between the prime minister, the Civil Service, departmental ministers and Parliament, interspersed with fragments of autobiography and extracts from the author’s diary, from the minutes of the Expenditure Committee and from various official papers that came his way. The autobiographical fragments are sometimes good reading. I particularly enjoyed Mr Sedgemore’s account of an interview between himself and Mr Callaghan’s chief whip, Michael Cocks, in the course of which Cocks rose from his chair and looked around the room:

There were three doors off it – one into the large Whips’ Office, one into the office of one of his advisers, and one into the corridor to get out. He then secured all three doors. Looking around I could see that my only means of escape was to throw myself out of the window behind his chair into the courtyard below.

  ‘You are playing with dynamite. You’ll have to watch it,’ he said gravely.

  ‘Oh yes, and who will detonate the dynamite, me or you, Michael,’ I replied and then left, unlocking one of the doors.

That vignette of the Callaghan administration at work is matched by an even more telling passage, describing two ‘images of patronage’:

The first is of Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, walking through the voting lobbies in the House of Commons surrounded by a seething mass of sycophants so that the Prime Minister himself could not be distinguished from the blob which seemed to be moving down the lobby. The second is of Harold Wilson walking quite alone down the same lobby after he had resigned as Prime Minister, the sycophants having taken themselves off elsewhere in search of another patron.

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