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.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the first fragment, though it has an awful ring of truth. The second duplicates my own memories exactly. But although there is something immensely attractive about Mr Sedgemore’s loathing for the sycophancy, self-importance and humbug of the Wilson and Callaghan courts, he is a much better diarist and autobiographer than political analyst. His book gives quite a good picture of what life was like in the Parliamentary Labour Party during the Wilson and Callaghan Governments. Unfortunately, the conclusions he draws from his experiences are almost all wrong, and sometimes alarming. Like a mini-Napoleon in exile, he refights his own battles with Mr Callaghan and the party whips, and Mr Benn’s battles with the civil servants in the Departments of Energy and Industry. He shows quite clearly that Mr Benn’s civil servants had minds of their own, and did not always tell their master what he wanted to hear. He also shows that they sometimes had the temerity to tell their opposite numbers in other departments what they really thought, rather than what their political boss would have preferred them to think. But instead of rejoicing that Whitehall can still command the services of men and women who are not afraid to think for themselves, he finds all this shocking – and not only shocking but undemocratic.

For democracy, as Mr Sedgemore defines it, entails not only drastic reductions in the powers of the prime minister and Civil Service, but drastic increases in the power of departmental ministers. Departmental ministers, he evidently believes, are entitled to the absolute, unswerving and unquestioning obedience of their civil servants, not only to the decisions which they have actually taken, but to the decisions which they would take if only the facts fitted their prejudices. It is true that, in a chapter rather pompously entitled ‘Lessons for Civil Servants’, he insists that the country needs ‘above everything else civil servants who respect the democratic process and in doing so are prepared to answer to their consciences’. Thus, the civil servants who knew that innocent men and women were being sent to die in Stalin’s concentration camps at the end of the Second World War should have spoken out. Thus, too, the Civil Service would be justified in exposing its political masters if they engaged in illegal or improper behaviour on Watergate lines. But these unexceptional sentiments are immediately qualified by a second principle, which is that the country needs ‘civil servants who are loyal to the ministers – loyal in advising them, loyal to their minister’s ideas and decisions, and loyal to their ministers in their battles (which are part of the democratic process) with their colleagues’.

The key phrases here are, of course, ‘ideas and decisions’ and ‘battles with their colleagues’. Few would dispute that civil servants should carry out the decisions actually taken by their ministers, even if they disagree with them. For that matter, few would dispute that civil servants ought to do all they can to understand the attitudes and values of their ministers, and ought not to pursue policies which they know to be at variance with those attitudes and values, unless their ministers agree. But loyal to the minister’s ideas? And loyal to him in his battles with colleagues? Mr Sedgemore does not define these terms, but the meaning emerges fairly clearly from his account of what he describes as ‘power struggles’ at the Department of Energy and Industry during Mr Benn’s periods of office as their Secretaries of State. The most important of these, at any rate for Mr Sedgemore’s argument, was the ‘power struggle’ in the Department of Energy over the future development of nuclear power. The civil servants in the Department of Energy wanted to embark on a big programme of Pressure Water Reactors, and did not want to develop the Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor. They made this clear to Mr Benn, and also to the Think Tank, but in the end, Mr Benn decided in favour of the AGR, and was backed by the Cabinet. For better or worse, in short, the system worked in textbook fashion. The civil servants told their political masters what they honestly believed, as they were in duty bound to do. The Minister and his Cabinet colleagues decided otherwise, as was their right.

Mr Sedgemore, however, depicts the whole episode in a much more sinister light. In his eyes, the civil servants behaved outrageously in arguing the case for the PWR when they knew that the Minister favoured the AGR, and still more outrageously when they made it clear to the Think Tank that they were in favour of the PWR even though their Minister was not. What his demand for loyalty really means, in other words, is that civil servants should be obliged not merely to execute their ministers’ policies once the policies have been decided, but to give advice which supports their ministers’ prejudices even when they believe them to be wrong, and to conceal their true opinions from the prime minister and Cabinet should their views and their ministers’ conflict. In their relations with ministers, in short, civil servants should emulate the three wise monkeys. They should say only what their ministers want to hear, and tell their colleagues only what their ministers want them to tell. They should be eunuchs, not only politically but intellectually as well.

It is, of course, a nonsense; and a nasty nonsense at that. But it is not a trivial or insignificant nonsense. During his time on the Expenditure Committee, Mr Sedgemore managed to persuade nearly all his Labour colleagues to vote for a ‘minority report’, based on the assumptions set out in this book, in which he attacked the Civil Service for behaving like ‘politicians writ large’ and for ‘arrogating to themselves power that properly belongs to the people and their representatives’. It is true that nothing came of it. The fact that such a document could have been accepted by 11 Labour MPs, by no means all of them on the Left of the Party, is nevertheless an ominous pointer to the future. In any case, Mr Sedgemore is a fairly representative member of the Bennite Left, and there is not much doubt that the attitudes he expresses here are shared by most other members of the Bennite Left. When they are put alongside the amendments which Mr Benn and his followers want to make to the Labour Party constitution, the total package is very significant indeed. For the object of Mr Benn’s constitutional proposals is, of course, to destroy the independence and integrity of the Parliamentary Labour Party – the chief ‘internal’, Party obstacle to government by the extra-parliamentary minority of activists who run Labour constituency management committees. What Mr Sedgemore is implicitly asking for is the destruction of one of the chief ‘external’, non-Party obstacles to activist government – namely, the independence and integrity of the public service. We cannot say that we have not been warned.

Yet this is where the real discussion begins, not where it ends. Mr Sedgemore is wrong in thinking that civil servants ought to be more subservient to ministers, but he is right in thinking that the relationship between ministers and civil servants needs examining anew. His whole argument rests on the assumption that ministers represent the ‘people’, and that assumption is, of course, central to our political culture. But in reality ministers do nothing of the sort. No post-war government has been returned with more than half the popular vote, and the government of which Mr Benn was a member did not win much more than a third of it. Yet Mr Benn persisted in behaving as though he had a democratic mandate for his policies, and Mr Sedgemore thinks he was right to do so. In practice, no great harm was done. Mr Benn was in a minority in the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister was against him. Once the Labour Party lost its overall majority in the House of Commons, the Government was in any case no longer sure of getting its measures through Parliament. But there is no guarantee that the factors which held Mr Benn back from 1974 to 1979 will still be in operation if another Labour government is returned to power in three or four years’ time, by a similar proportion of the electorate. For more than a century, British public servants have equated loyalty to the state with loyalty to their ministers. Mr Sedgemore wants to make that equation even closer than it is already. By a paradox from which he is unlikely to derive much amusement, the question most insistently raised by his book is whether it could survive a government composed of his political friends.

After these heady speculations, the lucid prose and careful argument of Mr Kellner and Lord Crowther-Hunt seem rather tame. Sensibly, they accept that civil servants are bound to play political roles and exert political influence. Sensibly, they argue that the crucial factor in the ‘balance of power’ between ministers and civil servants is the ‘balance of ability’, and that the best way to make sure that ministers control their servants instead of the other way round is to appoint good ministers. Sensibly, they spend a great deal of their space attacking the Civil Service mania for secrecy (as, to be fair, Mr Sedgemore does as well), and advocate more open government. But although most of their conclusions seem to me right, they too waste some of their energies on a false trail.

A large part of the book consists of an account of the Civil Service response to the Fulton Report. In it, the authors show that – largely because the ministers concerned had only a distinctly shallow commitment to the Fulton proposals themselves – the report was effectively buried by the civil servants who purported to be carrying its recommendations into effect. They are right in thinking that the episode tells us a lot about the way the Civil Service works, but unfortunately they do not stop there. Lord Crowther-Hunt was a member of the Fulton Committee himself, and retains a dewy-eyed faith in its findings – above all, in that classic example of 1960s scientism, the notion that the failings of the Civil Service can be traced back to the ‘cult of the generalist’, and that a deliberate attempt should be made to bias its recruiting procedures in favour of candidates with ‘relevant’ degrees. Mr Kellner seems to share the same faith; and as a result a large part of the book consists of a kind of lament for the lost glories of Fulton, and never even asks whether the civil servants who buried it may have been right.

Yet one of the few clear lessons of the last twenty years is that that sort of 1960s scientism is nonsense, that the ‘cult of the generalist’ is much less dangerous than the ‘cult of the specialist’ and that the notion of a ‘relevant’ university degree rests on a false assumption. There is a lot wrong with Whitehall’s recruitment and personnel policies. Far too few senior civil servants have any experience of industry, commerce, journalism or even local government. Outside the Foreign Office, far too many are linguistic cripples, with no knowledge of the rest of the European Community and no desire to find out. Far too few ever penetrate north of Watford Junction. Far too many join the service far too young, and spend their entire lives as non-celibate monks, sheltered from the stresses and strains of the world outside. But these ills have nothing to do with the ‘cult of the generalist’, and still less with the educational backgrounds of Civil Service recruits. The fundamental assumption of the Fulton Report was that the way to get a good economic policy is to have more economists in government, while the way to get a good social policy is to have more sociologists. Anyone who still believes that is capable of believing anything.