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Thursday, 12 March 2009

Labour's failure is also Whitehall's failure

Britain has not one but two civil services. One of them staffs the jobcentres, the regional agriculture offices, the defence establishments and the like. That civil service is relatively benign. It flies the flag, likes to go to the pub and enjoys a crafty ciggie round by the bins. It suffers the usual chronic illnesses of any bureaucracy - overmanning, perverse incentives, inflexibility - but generally provides a stable and useful outer tier of government.

The second civil service I shall call Whitehall. Though it chuckles at its characterisation in the mould of Sir Humphrey, it's now a million miles removed from those suave establishment figures that populated Pall Mall's clubs and Westminster's restaurants in Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's comedies. I've met many of them, and they're as dangerous and corrosive to the national interest as any Labour minister.

Many of the ruthlessly centralising and Statist policies we ascribe to Labour come not from the National Executive Committee but from this elite breed; they have their own agenda that transcends party politics, and they can achieve it through Conservative as well as through Labour ministers. In the flesh it strikes you as a supreme arrogance, an unassailable righteousness that can't admit of any credible alternatives to State centralism and European Federalism. And if Parliament must be emasculated and our local democratic institutions rendered insignificant, then rules and constitutional changes are carefully drafted to achieve it.

If you've got an image of stuffed shirts, forget it. Think instead of the humourless grave-faced tie-less guy in his 30s or 40s you see coming home on the 20.20 train wearing a Boden linen jacket and tapping away at his laptop or Blackberrying, perhaps sipping at his mineral water. These are the men and women on the tier below the permanent secretaries who actually drive what government does. They're as poisonous as Scorpions and corrosive as acid.

They emerged from the drive to 'modernise' the civil service from the late 70s onward; as fluent in management-speak as in traditional mandarin, thin and hungry as whippets, intolerant of Old England and its customs and habits, more likely to be seen at a Kaiser Chiefs gig at the O2 than at the Royal Opera, often chippy and regional, and all with an unshakeable belief that they're the people fit to govern, to control and to wield the power of the State.

This is all preamble to few linked posts I shall try to get through to do justice to Reform's recent research 'Fit for Purpose' (.pdf) on civil service reform. And let there be no doubt; if we're to reverse the worst of the last two or three decades of malignant change, it's this civil service - Whitehall - that we must focus on.


Dick Puddlecote said...

Excellent article, and so very true.

An elected MP, at a meeting in London this month, expressed (off the record) the very same sentiment about the DoH. Ministers appear increasingly to be mere puppets to unelected civil servants.

Anonymous said...

Lots of truth in this post, I think.

Donny B said...

WE must make it our common purpose to rid ourselves of them!
The New Jesuits will not be moved easily , at least you have identified the problem , hopefully enough people will listen and ACT.

it's either banned or compulsory said...

"the humourless grave-faced tie-less guy in his 30s or 40s "
I was with two of these chaps the other day, informally. We happened to be chatting about Climate Change, population growth n' stuff. They weren't at all condescending but when I jokingly referred to internet " conspiracy theorists" who believe that " they " want to reduce the planets population by 80%, you know, David Ike and the lizards stuff ha ha, LOL !.
Their reaction was somewhat surprising, they sat bolt upright for several seconds, didn't say a word.