Daily catch-up: Tony Blair didn't politicise the civil service, he provided leadership

Top Education and Home Office civil servant gives his view to the 'Blair Years' course at King's College, London

Week four of the "Blair Years" course at King's College, London, yesterday, and our guest was Sir David Normington, now First Civil Service Commissioner, who was permanent secretary at Education, 2001-05, and at the Home Office, 2005-11. 

As the top official in two "delivery" departments, he was well placed to tell the story of New Labour's relations with the civil service. He said that, although some Labour ministers and their special advisers were suspicous of civil servants who had worked for Conservatives for 18 years, they were wrong to be. Civil servants "could not be immune" from the feeling in 1997 that it was time for a change, and for him it was "a relief" to work for a government that believed in public service. 

He said that Tony Blair's leadership and activism "energised" the civil service. "The relentless emphasis from Number 10 on delivery with a capital D", the setting of targets for which ministers and civil servants were accountable, and the belief that active government could bring about change meant that civil servants felt valued, which was "not the same with the governments that preceded it and succeeded it". 

At Education and the Home Office, he would see Blair every six to eight weeks for stocktake meetings to review progress towards targets.

The Prime Minister never let up. After 9/11, on the morning the Prime Minister was departing for Washington, we had a stocktake at which he said, "While I'm away I am relying on you to keep standards in schools going up." Two weeks before he stood down as Prime Minister, we had one on why it was so difficult to send failed asylum seekers back to their country of origin. Over time, the stocktakes became more forensic, and by then he knew more than his officials. This focus on delivery and outcomes was more significant in changing civil service attitudes than anything else. Leadership from Number 10 was the single most important reason public services improved.

Although attitudes changed, the organisation of the civil service did not. Sir David felt that more could have been done to bring in outsiders, to identify and promote talent and to develop delivery skills, but that human resources was one of Blair's weak points. "Civil service reform is a very boring subject. Tony Blair thought that it was the job of the civil service leadership, and he felt that in Gus O'Donnell he had someone who had that quality." But O'Donnell became Cabinet Secretary (and head of the Home Civil Service) in 2005, too late to make big changes in Blair's time. 

Despite his enthusiasm for Blair's reforming zeal, Sir David rejected the charge that New Labour "politicised" the civil service: 

I really don't think you should get too excited by this profoundly uninteresting question. It is inevitable that if you have strong leaders, over time the senior civil service becomes aligned with them. It was similar in the Thatcher years. It is the job of civil servants to be aware of this alignment. 

He said that the tensions with the "rival centre of power", Gordon Brown, made life difficult in some ways but had benefits for the Education Department. Not only did he have to attend stocktakes at Number 10, but he had to go to separate "performance reviews" at the Treasury. But, whereas most departments were responsible either for "Blair's issues" or for "Brown's issues", Education was both. "We got money for everything." Sure Start, for example, was devised in the Treasury and handed to Education in 1999. "It came with a vast budget which we couldn't spend. I had to give evidence to the select committee, where I didn't say we hadn't spent it because we were given too much."

Charles Clarke, a visiting professor at King's who was Sir David's Secretary of State at Education, 2002-04, and then at the Home Office until 2006, commented. He said: "The Blair-Brown relationship I probably shouldn't talk about at all, but David is right that we often got money when we didn't ask for it."

On the myth of the "Tory civil service", he said it arose under previous Labour governments: "You shouldn't underestimate the effect of Tony Benn and Barbara Castle's diaries, in which they built their alibi for failure on civil servants." (He admitted he had a stake on both sides of this debate, as his father, Otto Clarke, was Benn's permanent secretary.)

On Blair's Cabinet Secretaries, Clarke said he knew Richard Wilson, now Lord Wilson of Dinton, Blair's second Cabinet Secretary from 1998 to 2002, as he is now Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where Clarke lives. Clarke had given him a tip that he could get 8/1 against the Conservatives winning a majority in the 2015 election, and as a result they had shared some champagne on the winnings. He said Wilson and Blair's personalities "didn't mesh". 

He agreed with Sir David that allegations of politicisation and "sofa government" were "so much rubbish" and "not remotely true". He said: "If the relationship between the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary is right then everything works." 

Sir David concluded by saying that the Blair years were some of the best of his career. "We believed we were doing something important – sometimes we succeeded, sometimes not. What makes the difference is leadership, and in the Blair years we had that in abundance."

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