Be honest. Sir Humphrey is no longer independentThe civil service is so politicised that its impartiality is just a myth
Monday March 1, 2004
The prime minister has called for a radical reform of the civil service. The parody of Sir Humphrey, he complained, has a heavy dose of truth in it. It is time to create a service which gets things done.
But Tony Blair knows full well that Sir Humphrey was castrated in 1986, when the then head of the civil service, Sir Robert Armstrong, snuffed out the public interest defence following the case of Clive Ponting, the civil servant who blew the whistle on the sinking of the Belgrano. Servants of the crown meant servants of the government of the day, Armstrong ruled, and the civil service had no responsibility separate from that government.
Sir Andrew Turnbull, the current head of the civil service, responded to Blair's calls for reform by saying that an impartial and independent civil service was a major national asset. Maybe, but he, too, must know that we no longer have one.
The war on Iraq showed a politicised civil service in a particularly unsavoury light. It is now widely believed that Blair would not have won parliament's support for military action if the weapons of mass destruction report had not been heavily politicised. And some believe that America might not have acted without our barrister prime minister pleading its case.
The prime minister's foreword to the so-called "dodgy dossier" emphasised that it was from the joint intelligence committee - chaired by the cabinet office and made up of heads of intelligence agencies and senior officials from key departments. With such a pedigree, the implication was, its views must be sound. Civil servants are above politics.
Evidence to the Hutton inquiry suggested the opposite. Questionable intelligence was used, with distortions like the 45-minute claim, against the views of intelligence staff. Political advisers from Number 10 had pummelled JIC officials to redraft to create more alarm. A former JIC chairman, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, has accused the JIC of losing its objectivity. It appears impossible to square the WMD report with the integrity promoted by the civil service code. The issue has become murkier with the possibility that the attorney general's advice was also based on suspect intelligence, which may have led to the ending of last week's Katherine Gun trial.
But what many do not realise is that official reports are routinely politicised as far as is defensible. The extreme nature of the politicisation of the WMD dossier was a one-off, carried out because exposure was never contemplated - David Kelly's actions and the Hutton inquiry were inconceivable at the time. Most official reports, however, are based on evidence that is challengeable, and the degrees of defensible politicisation are much lower.
It has not always been thus. Before the 1980s, civil servants owed an immediate duty to the government of the day, but, as servants of the crown, they could retain some independence by advising in the national interest - a conveniently undefined concept. If ministers strayed too far from the national or public interest, they were admonished by a "permanent secretary's letter". Such a letter might have questioned why an attack on Iraq was being justified by the questionable WMD argument when many thought the real motivation was oil and a strong military presence.
Within such a congenial environment, civil servants could be somewhat aloof. The cricket club for whom I set up a Suffolk tour in the 1960s was aptly named The Mandarins. We felt, then, that we ran the real show, with politicians putting in guest appearances. How each of us did our jobs depended on our beliefs and characters. Some were "activists", seeing our role as searching for better policies and methods. Others were "minimalists", free traders who believed in a very limited role for government. Most were conservatives, keeping the ship clear of icebergs. Some were operators, adept at getting things through. However, we were all drawn together by working for the national interest.
Politicisation accelerated with the appointment of more than 70 political advisers, the opening up of key posts to political appointments and the clear out of press officers. This process was started by Margaret Thatcher, and continued under Tony Blair.
Less is known of how doing away with the mandarins enabled the minimalists to take over key positions throughout the service. This had a direct impact on the activists within the service, particularly in interventionist areas like the Department of Employment and Department of Industry.
In the Thatcher 1980s, activists like myself were at risk. One evening I bumped into a colleague who exclaimed: "John, they are trying to push me out." We both knew who "they" were - not ministers, but the inner circle of key officials across Whitehall. I did not see him in the department again.
I was also under pressure. My initiatives ranged from oil policy to selective investment schemes. Under the Conservatives I handled the sprawling Department of Industry budget. But in the climate of the later 1980s, my division head - an extreme minimalist - stripped me of policy responsibilities and denied me annual performance reports, vital for career and pay. One senior official asked me why my name had disappeared from the confidential promotion list. The grapevine had it that I might be offered a regional job, or resignation.
With six children happy at school, I had to tough it out. I escaped by gaining prominence through introducing the UK R&D Scoreboard and writing an influential paper. I could no longer be bundled out quietly, so I formally requested the outstanding annual appraisals. The conspiring or negligent personnel division awarded me one bonus point - a few extra pounds a month - for my ordeal as a non-person. But my career prospects were zero. Others will have suffered similar politicisation.
Even if senior civil servants stay in their posts after elections, they are politicised by Armstrong, by political advisers and press officers, and by undisclosed pressures within the civil service.
Canute-like, the committee on standards in public life and others have called for a new Civil Service Act to redefine the roles of governments and civil servants - an implausible exercise. If civil servants are to have an independent, pre-Armstrong role, serving the national interest, what does that concept mean, and can such a role be squared with our democracy? How could a select group of people in Whitehall, and not elected governments, be allowed to define our national interests? Once it worked because nobody questioned it, but it would be very difficult to bring back.
The best reform would be to fully and openly politicise the civil service. Elected parties could then be properly responsible for efficient government; and parliament, the public and civil servants would not have to stomach the myths of independence.
John Chapman is a former assistant secretary in the civil service, in which he served from 1963-96.