Barely noticed, civil war is raging in Whitehall

Government ministers are riding roughshod over the civil service, and that leads to government by cock-up and a loss of morale in Whitehall

Related Topics

The First Law of Holes states that: “If you find yourself in one, stop digging”. This week’s report that Government ministers have appointed a string of “expert advisers” from outside Whitehall is hole-digging in this sense. For the move is likely further to exacerbate the difficult relationship between government ministers and senior civil servants.

These “expert advisers” – and the Department for Education already has three – are different from and in addition to the “special advisers”  found all over Whitehall who are employed to remind ministers of political imperatives.

What you see here is the construction of a sort of shadow senior civil service, an alternative source of advice for ministers. These advisers have ready access to ministers. They are placed at the top of government departments. They are nominally answerable to the civil services’ heads of departments – the Permanent Secretaries – but, in reality, they are rivals to them and their teams.

This has gone hand in hand with a systematic denigration of civil servants. As Sir Richard Mottram, the former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, recently remarked, referring to ministers: “If you’re having a rough patch in government, then it is useful to be able to point the finger at people other than yourself.”


Tension between government ministers and their senior civil servants goes back a long way. In the 1960s and 1970s, criticism of the Civil Service came from the left and from the right. It was then that special advisers were first brought in. Labour said that civil servants sprang from too narrow a social class, wallowed in their own self-esteem and were out of touch with a rapidly changing society. Tories believed that the official mindset was dismayingly interventionist. Governments should do less and do it differently. The style of conviction politics practised by Mrs Thatcher was unsuited to close collaboration.

Mrs Thatcher narrowed the scope within which civil servants could challenge ministers, but they were still seen as partners. Christopher Foster, in his book British Government in Crisis (2005), wrote that Mr Blair “treated them as subordinates and excluded them from central policy making unless ready to be politicised”. If ministers took the wrong path, nobody told them to turn back.

The consequences are becoming clear to see. The first is “omnishambles”, or government by cock-up. See some recent announcements. A project launched by David Cameron to place small businesses in disused government buildings is on the verge of failure, the Treasury’s most senior civil servant has disclosed. The Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that George Osborne’s “shares for workers’ rights” could end up costing Britain £1bn a year in lost revenues at the same time as the Government battles to clamp down on tax avoidance schemes. The £5bn back-to-work scheme is only “working” for two in every 100 unemployed people. The target was 5.5 per cent.

The second consequence is a severe loss of morale in Whitehall. A recent poll showed that two-thirds of Britain’s most senior civil servants are so fed up that they are considering leaving their jobs. Many of them blame ministers’ public criticisms and a widening pay gap with the private sector.

The rate of turnover in top officials themselves is unprecedented, averaging as it does approximately one change in permanent secretary every month since the 2010 election. Some 18 out of 20 departments have experienced at least one shift of permanent secretary, with some moving departments and others leaving the Civil Service all together.

Out of their depth

This breakdown in trust tells us that an important element in Britain’s constitutional arrangements is no longer working. A strong, independent Civil Service, recruited solely on merit, makes good the shortcomings of government ministers, exclusively drawn as they are from among members of Parliament, which by its nature is a limited source of talent.

To put it bluntly, there has to be a way of handling secretaries of state like John Prescott, who presided over a huge department, Environment, Transport and Regions, specially put together to suit his giant ego. He was described in the diary kept by Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP, in the following terms: “There is a barely concealed contempt among both civil servants and ministers for his absolute lack of management skills, his inability to see wood for trees and his flat refusal to listen to anything anyone is telling him.”

We only know about New Labour’s out-of-their-depth ministers because accounts of the period have been published. We shall discover the Coalition equivalents in due course. Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary, was frank about being not up to the job: “Well, every single time that I was appointed to a ministerial job I thought that.” As to the Home Office, she confessed that she had “never run a major organisation” before accepting the job in 2007.

This lack of ministerial experience is why  the government of the day should nurture  the Civil Service, build it up and keep it in good shape. Not belittle or disregard it. Stop digging.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own