The Thing

Alan Ryan

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

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.

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