Back in 2010 the incoming government's potential difficulties with the top ranks of the civil service were highlighted; mandarins, new ministers were told, spent a third of their time and departmental resources working for Europe, a third pursuing their own agenda and only a third on the government's manifesto. It should be added that nowadays many of them are also interested in more than the eventual (mostly undeserved) KCMG, KCB or KBE that comes with the rations, a modest pension and a quiet retirement; either, like Hayden Phillips or Christopher Kelly, they want to play at politics themselves, or they're after a well rewarded seat on the board of a private sector firm where they can sell the privileged experience bought at public expense.
Northcote-Trevelyan defined the duty of the mandarins thus:
It may safely be asserted that, as matters now stand, the Government of the country could not be carried on without the aid of an efficient body of permanent officers, occupying a position duly subordinate to that of the Ministers who are directly responsible to the Crown and to Parliament, yet possessing sufficient independence, character, ability and experience to be able to advise, assist and, to some extent, influence those who are from time to time set over them.And so Northcote-Trevelyan put in place a system to recruit Britain's best and brightest, a pure meritocracy, to mandarin-grade posts. The minister with a 2:2 in media studies from Hull would thereby have on hand a Sir Humphrey with an Oxford double first and the business of government would thereby be enhanced. Or it would be if the mandarin-grade staff remained truly impartial. And if they once were, they've ceased to be so. A recruitment system geared at employing 'people like us' together with a forced social-democratic system of equalities of outcome, and the operation of sinister 'clubs' such as Common Purpose, have produced a mandarinate with a homogeneity of outlook, convinced in their righteousness, who feel quite justified in openly challenging the wishes of ministers.
Committed to a big, central State and to Whitehall's control over all the levers of governance, they have robbed local government of independence, stifled democracy, fatally wounded the parties and would seek (Phillips and Kelly) to establish permanent publically funded 'parties of State' to provide the illusion of democracy whilst they govern.
The Times (£) is openly reporting the frustration of ministers in named departments. The solution being mooted is replacing the permanent mandarins with temporary political appointees.
I beg to differ. The real solution is to abolish entire Whitehall departments and to devolve their functions back where they belong; a Whitehall with just a Treasury, a Foreign Office, a Defence Ministry and a Maritime and Air Transport Department would probably suit. The problem isn't the mandarins as such; it's the sort of State they believe in that's at the root of all our problems.