When Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street, Robin Butler was head of the Civil Service. He was quickly accused of displaying political bias. A number of observers thought that he was far too ready to accommodate his new masters.
During the Thatcher and Major governments, there had been strict rules about the employment of political advisers. In order to protect the rest of the civil service from corruption, their numbers, cost and power were all limited.
When Labour took over, those limits were instantly relaxed. Robin Butler felt it important to display a welcoming face to the new government. He knew that politicians are temperamentally inclined to disbelieve in political neutrality, and that any opposition finds it easy to persuade itself that civil servants are really government sympathisers. This is an especial problem when a party has been out of power for 18 years. So Lord Butler set out to ensure that the new government would have no legitimate grounds for complaint about civil service obstructiveness.
Some senior civil servants felt that he went too far. Whoever was right, one point is clear. It would be absurd to suggest that Robin Butler was a Tory stooge, the charge which Labour former minister Jack Cunningham made on the Today programme last Friday.
In an interview with Boris Johnson, Lord Butler had repeated some of the complaints about the Blair style of government which he made at length in the Butler Report. His Lordship thinks that it is wrong for so many important decisions to be taken on the Prime Ministerial sofa. He believes that it is better to have proper meetings with proper minutes. He thinks that this government suffers from a tendency for ministers to reach conclusions after some muddled huddling with political advisers. He sees nothing wrong with political advisers, as long as ministers also talk to their civil servants.Lord Butler thinks that the PM would have found governing much easier if he had recognised and used the traditional strengths of the civil service.
It would be nonsensical to claim that this was mere partisan warfare. In the same week it was revealed that David Blunkett was contemptuous of the way in which several of his Cabinet colleagues ran their departments. Not even Dr Cunningham would accuse Mr Blunkett of being a closet Tory.
It is interesting that New Labour's media strategists decided that instead of trying to respond to Lord Butler's points, they would try to discredit him. In that task, Jack Cunningham was a good choice of implement. He comes from traditional Labour politics in the north-east of England. That is a profoundly anti-intellectual tradition which never bothers itself with the niceties of subtlety.
North-eastern Labour politics deals in only one commodity: power. In acquiring and retaining power, the Labour party's apparatchiks did not ration their ruthlessness. Their aim was to turn every local authority into a Labour rotten borough. Sometimes, the rottenness grew excessive. Jack Cunningham's father, Andy, a Labour boss in Newcastle, ended up in prison for corruption.
The son may be a more moral figure than the father, but he is just as much of a boot boy, as he demonstrated on the Today programme.
Leaving aside any ethical considerations, this may have been an unwise tactical judgement. Tens of thousands of civil servants will have been listening to the Today programme and they will not have liked what they heard. To many of them, the cheerful way in which Jack Cunningham expressed his contempt for Lord Butler's arguments will have sounded like an attack on the integrity of the British civil service.
There was an irony here. Back in 1997, a large number of civil servants were looking forward to working with the Blair government. They were not closet Labour supporters, but they had become terminally disillusioned with the outgoing Tory regime. As a result of the disordered nature of the Tory parliamentary party, many of whose backbenchers seemed to believe that they should be in a state of permanent revolution against their Prime Minister, poor John Major found it almost impossible to get anything done. The quality which civil servants most admire in their ministers is clarity of purpose. They expected the incoming Blair team to display that, and they looked forward to it.
Seven-and-a-half years later, there is widespread disenchantment. Many civil servants have now concluded that this Government only displays clarity of purpose in the pursuit of headlines. They are depressed by the way in which many of the normal operations of government have been subordinated to spin and political expediency. As one senior civil servant put it the other day: "Even after all these years, this lot's still behaving as if they were in opposition. They've never understood what governing involves."
To judge by the small print of the Butler Report, Robin Butler himself may have come to similar conclusions. When he made his concessions to the new Labour ministers, he assumed that the experience of office would rapidly housetrain them. As this has not happened, Lord Butler may now regret his permissiveness.
At the time of the Burgess and Maclean affair, when two diplomats defected to the Russians, there was alarm and despondency throughout Whitehall. The then Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, was finding it hard to keep his temper. A civil servant began a sentence by saying: "I think ...". He was instantly interrupted: "I don't give a pig's nipple what you think," said Mr Morrison. To judge by Dr Cunningham's demeanour, that could become New Labour's motto in its dealing with officials. But the officials may take their revenge.
Of themselves, a few tens of thousands of civil service votes do not matter. Yet it could be symptomatic of a wider electoral problem, which might matter. Back in 1997, when Tony Blair looked youthful and sounded idealistic, he and his colleagues laid great stress on their high-mindedness. Many voters believed them. Convinced that the Tories were a squalid set of sleazemongers, much of the electorate turned in relief to these new, honest faces.
If they are reminded of those judgements in focus groups, most voters now react by berating themselves for naivety. Dr Cunningham will not have changed their minds. When he poured scorn on the whole notion that a former head of the Civil Service could criticise the government without having a cheap political purpose in mind, he not only sounded cheap himself. He seemed to express contempt for the concept of probity in government. The voters who followed his argument in detail will have noted that.
Mr Blair may believe that his electoral position is impregnable, but if the already widespread moral distaste were to gain further momentum he may yet be proved wrong. Lord Butler deserved more than a boot boy's reply, and it would have been wiser for the government to treat him better.Reuse content