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

Share
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.”

Subordinate

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: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Why it won’t be the i wot won it – our promise to you

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor