Babes in the Whitehall wood

If Labour is to wield power, it must learn to deal with the mandarins

Share
Related Topics
Sir Robin Butler, Whitehall's head prefect and Cabinet Secretary, turns 60, retirement age, one year from now, in January 1998. If he is going to be replaced, the button needs to be pushed as soon as this June - mere weeks after Tony Blair's likely arrival at 10 Downing Street.

By this stage in the game, however uncertain the final electoral arithmetic, a Labour Party hungry for power should have decided on the Butler succession. But does an incoming Labour government even need a Cabinet Secretary who is also head of the Civil Service like Sir Robin? Only if it accepts without demur the Whitehall structure it will inherit from the Conservatives.

There were stories over the Christmas recess to the effect that Labour wants "an outsider" for the post. The fact is that it does not take much networking to see that only a limited number of people in Whitehall and even fewer outsiders have enough experience and clout to become either or both Cabinet Secretary or professional head of the Civil Service. Sir Richard Wilson, now at the Home Office, would be a clone of Sir Robin. If Mr Blair picked Richard Mottram, now at Defence, it could be presented as state-school meritocracy in action.

There are at least four or five of Whitehall's top people who would do the existing Cabinet Secretary job well enough. But their identity matters far less than evidence that Labour has carried out its overview of the machinery of state. Working out in advance which officials of energy and imagination Labour ministers would be comfortable with is important for the government-in-waiting, but it is far less vital than developing a strategy linking political objectives, political possibility and administrative means.

What Labour seems to lack still, oddly, is governing confidence. The kind of confidence that Margaret Thatcher had in 1981 when she summarily dismissed Sir Ian Bancroft as head of the Civil Service. As confident as when she chopped the long-range think tank, the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS). As confident as when she promoted a committed monetarist to head the Treasury (he is still there).

So far, Labour's preparations have been scant. Derek Foster, the shadow minister covering Whitehall, is marginal to this process. The crux decisions (for example about the relations of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office) are languishing in Mr Blair's pending tray.

Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff, has "had conversations"; he may even have talked to his brother, Charles, Lady Thatcher's Civil Service protege at Number 10. He is said to see himself as head of a revamped "think tank", amalgamating the old CPRS and the Number 10 policy unit.

Some shadows have attended the odd Fabian or Institute of Public Policy Research seminar given by the Whitehall expert Peter Hennessy. But to date the most ordered statement of Labour's thinking about the Civil Service is a watery chapter in Peter Mandelson's and Roger Liddle's bathetic book The Blair Revolution.

Cynical men of the world lean back at this point and say, "committees and machinery, all that is for anoraks". What really matters, they say, are political personalities. If Mr Blair cannot trust his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, as Mrs Thatcher could rely on Geoffrey Howe in 1979, no amount of machinery will bridge the political chasm at the heart of the administration. Splitting the Cabinet Secretary's job, beefing up the Cabinet Secretariat ... all that may be irrelevant, since Mr Blair, evidently, has no Michael Heseltine figure to head a central, progress-chasing unit in the Cabinet Office. Neither John Prescott nor Robin Cook look quite right for the role.

But cynical men of the world are wrong if they don't see how self-defeating is an approach to power that has not worked out, in advance, how far the Civil Service has changed under the Tories and how it ought to change under Labour. Any government with the kind of heavy constitutional commitments that Labour has needs a governing strategy and, critically for ministers who have never tasted life surrounded by a private office cocoon, a realistic sense of what civil servants can and cannot do for a Labour government.

Since January of last year - under more generous rules agreed, to his credit, by John Major - Labour shadows have had reasonably free access to Whitehall. Some have been along to training courses arranged by academic and ex-Civil Service sympathisers at Templeton College in Oxford to acclimatise. Some (David Blunkett and Michael Bichard, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment) have met and matched. But it has taken some - Frank Dobson, notoriously - 11 months to get round to visiting the man who, if Mr Dobson succeeds to the Environment Secretary's post, will be his daily companion in the pathways of power.

It isn't enough. Just as generals are always fighting the war before last, so Labour shadows seem lost in some ancient perception of Whitehall culled from the pages of the Crossman diaries. Either that or they have been listening too hard to Bernard Donoughue, head of Jim Callaghan's policy unit, and his memories of an obstructionist Civil Service. Folk memories on the left die hard: somewhere here is Ramsay MacDonald succumbing to Lady Londonderry's aristocratic embrace. And if the establishment can corrupt Labour ingenues, so can the smooth mandarins of Whitehall.

New Labourites of the Mandelson stamp think they are too sophisticated to fall into Sir Humphry's clutches. Mr Mandelson, having come to know Sir Robin reasonably well in recent years, thinks all Labour needs to do is give civil servants their marching orders. Just as the machine served the Tories, so it will serve Labour. The old verities about neutrality and objective advice still hold.

The trouble with this is that the old verities are not enough. Mrs Thatcher's handbagging has marked Whitehall, and not just in the sense that there are now executive agencies and contracts and a new management style. Labour will inherit a Civil Service that has lost its intellectual edge and - beneath that infinitely smooth surface - a lot of its self-confidence. And that may actually make things more difficult for a Labour government seeking to initiate radical changes.

There are several areas where Labour will surely need first-rate advice, but will it be on offer. Of all Britain's post-war problems, the one that has never shown Whitehall at its best in terms of the quality of thought or imaginative advice is Europe. And, for all the seminars that the permanent secretaries have organised on the family and social dislocation, social policy is another area where Whitehall is weak, both in terms of inter- departmental co-ordination and new policy ideas.

Labour has at most four months before it takes power. There are two things it can still do before it inherits Whitehall. One is compiling lists. Before taking office, both Prime Minister and Shadow Cabinet colleagues ought to know enough of personnel and potential to identify, where appropriate, Whitehall's good women, French-speakers, Newcastle United supporters and so on.

But the names of civil servants matter less than the job they will be asked to do. What does Labour want Whitehall for? Does it expect hot, expert advice, or just professional implementation of pre-ordained policy? Those are not really administrative questions, they go to the heart of the Labour puzzle. Does Mr Blair want power in order to do, or power in order to be? Modern Whitehall is well fitted to give him the second. For the first, he would need to reform Whitehall far more radically than Mrs Thatcher ever dreamt.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Sales Consultants - OTE £65,000 - £100,000

£65000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national direct sales com...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Consultant - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Can you sell? Want to earn over...

Recruitment Genius: Partitioners / Carpenter / Multi Skilled Tradesmen / Decorator

£28000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Various opportunities are avail...

Recruitment Genius: Trade Marketing Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company leads the market i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

My cancer diagnosis cost me my home

Deanne Wilson
Dov Charney, the founder and former CEO of American Apparel  

American Apparel has finally fired Dov Charney, but there's no reason to celebrate just yet

Alice Nutting
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum