Civil Servants and Sierra Leone: Wanted: a defender for Whitehall's wily ways

Click to follow
THERE is a guilty politician at the heart of the arms to Sierra Leone affair.

Yet the woman concerned, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, stands accused not for anything she may or may not have done in her role as Foreign Office minister in the Lords.

Her sin stems from her previous incarnation as leader of the top civil servants' union, the First Division Association. What Liz Symons, as she then was, did not do was say - publicly - that the shock-horror response to the conduct of civil servants as described in the Scott inquiry into arms for Iraq was entirely misplaced. All the judge did was characterise Whitehall's common culture. That's how it is in the upper branches of the great oak of state. They sit there, on her shelves, the many volumes of Scott, and all their analysis of what it is that civil servants do has never once been registered as accurate - and appropriate - by those responsible for tending the ethic of public service.

It's not just her, of course. Those same volumes also squat on the shelves in the masters' lodging at University College, Oxford, to which by Establishment magic Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler was translated on his retirement last year. Where was his programmatic statement to follow the Scott report on arms for Iraq?

His successor as head of the civil service, Sir Richard Wilson, is supposed to be considering another Scott finding, about the dead-weight of departmentalism in modern British government - something Tony Blair desperately needs to break down if his cross-cutting social policy initiatives are to have a chance of success. But Sir Richard has turned out to be a mandarin mute: no public speeches, no presence among his colleagues who, following their ministers, bed daily ever deeper in their departmental fastnesses.

Labour has inherited a civil service without a soul. Officials applauded Tony Blair's triumphal entry into Downing Street. They told themselves this was the democratic system working well, alternating governments just as in the old days. Yet they know a host of profound questions about management and responsibility raised during the Tory years need answering, still. The official doctrine - from Eighties Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong - that they are the mere creatures of their ministers, doing what they are told and no more was and remains one of the most callow and ineffective statements of their purpose and culture.

Already the Sierra Leone affair offers two lessons. The first - bad news for all those (T. Blair included) who want maximum coordination and coherence across the face of government - is that our system is remarkably plural and veers towards the anarchic. Departmentalism does rule OK.

Here we have HM Customs and Excise, a department within the Treasury but one with its own legislative existence and remarkably strong esprit de corps, investigating the conduct of fellow officials in the Foreign Office. It is highly unlikely the Chancellor of the Exchequer was told what Customs were doing. Is that a testimony to the political naivety of Valerie Strachan, Customs' head, or ringing endorsement of her independence? Responses so far, including public puzzlement that one group of civil servants can so embarrass another, suggest that somebody in a high place needs urgently to set out the rationale for government's internal diversity.

The second revelation entirely confirms the finding of Sir Richard Scott that throughout Whitehall, but especially in the Foreign Office, a cavalier attitude towards parliamentary reporting prevails. Conventional wisdom, especially of the kind cultivated by backbench MPs who are too lazy to find things out for themselves or equip the House of Commons with proper investigatory powers, says this is disgraceful.

A more considered response is that highly-paid, clever civil servants working within the bounds of policy (however lightly sketched by their ministers) ought to be allowed an arena of discretion in which to work. Does that amount to "private" policy making? Well, so much of policy is actually made by triangular agreements between interest groups, ministers and officials with the press and Parliament as occasional bystanders. Is that really contempt of democracy?

It is - but only because no one in power ever stops to defend a more sophisticated, subtle conception of power in our kind of society. Perhaps the British newspaper press being what it is, such "Machiavellianism" is impermissible. But the effort needs to be made.

It would certainly help if the Prime Minister were capable of articulating the idea that full transparency, total parliamentary accountability just don't work. But that does not mean the end of democracy. It means creating political space in which discretionary action by officials is supported. It is striking how, in his project for constitutional modernisation, Mr Blair has so far had nothing at all to say about the place of public servants in the new order, let alone what their ethic should look like.

We live, these days, in a Defargist political culture - somebody's head has got to roll before the political spectacle is declared over. There may, in the Sierra Leone case, have been mistakes made which deserve censure. More likely events can be explained by reference to a conception of power- holding and civil service which embraces a degree of discretion on the part of officials. Is it wrong ... do we want senior civil servants to behave like ciphers who get ministerial signatures on every piece of paper and tell MPs everything in every way? If we do, let's have that said and Cabinet Secretary and First Division Association make public professions that they are only there do to as they are told, never to think for themselves. Until then, let's not mistake worldly exercise of state power in practical situations of great complexity for some plot to usurp popular decision- making.