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- Arts + Ents
Monday 27 January 1997
Here's how, Tony
Gerald Kaufman, former Labour minister under Wilson, has some tips for Tony Blair and his would-be cabinet
Civil servants have studied Labour policy documents intensively and will be acquainted with the contents of those documents more thoroughly than the very Labour politicians who wrote them - let alone the many more Labour politicians who were supposed to read them, but may just possibly not have done so. At an early meeting with civil servants after Labour won in 1974, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Harold Lever, noticed that several of those civil servants were brandishing copies of the Labour manifesto. This notoriously laid-back politician pleaded: "I've always wanted one of those. Can you get me one?"
Primed to the eyebrows, civil servants will be able to advise Labour ministers on how to be efficient administrators. They will be completely unequipped to guide those ministers on how to be effective members of a successful administration. Whitehall mandarins are masters of the arcana of inter-departmental minutes and "submissions" - the quaint soubriquet for the documents that civil servants send to ministers rather than to one another.
They do not have the faintest idea of how to operate - let alone manipulate - the political process. Yet it is as politicians that Tony Blair's lot will be judged.
So let me offer a few handy rules for members of Labour's shadow administration, to cut out and paste on to the red boxes that they will soon proudly - indeed, let us make no bones about it, ostentatiously - be flaunting.
1 Beware the disease of Departmentalitis. As members of Labour's shadow front bench in opposition, you at present see each other all the time. Some of you even talk to one another. At any rate, you get the opportunity to do so. In government, ministers are split up and kept away from each other, each batch sequestered in a separate departmental building.
Unless extremely strong-minded, you may come to regard life in these buildings as the be-all and end-all of your existence. Yet, out there is the rest of the government and, believe it or not, the real world. Ministers should understand that the success of their own department's line, in isolation, may not only not be the best for the government and the people, it may in fact be the worst.
One colleague in the Labour government, involved in a dispute with me over policy, demanded that we meet not in my department but in his, or at any rate on what he called "neutral ground". I pointed out that we were not participants in some armistice negotiation, but colleagues who should be co-operating for the common good. This idea, at first quite novel to him, eventually made sense; we came to a decision that was good for thousands of workers (and, incidentally or not so very incidentally, good for the Government).
2 Beware the disease of Ministerialitis. After 18 years of being an opposition dogsbody, getting to be called "Minister" numerous times every day may give you ideas above your station. Being a minister is an honour, but it is an honour that has come your way fortuitously and may equally fortuitously be taken away.
When John Parker, MP for Dagenham, became the first member of Clement Attlee's administration to be sacked, Parker had the temerity to ask Attlee why. Attlee, notably taciturn, mumbled, "Not up to the job."
Being up to the job as a minister involves remembering that there is a whole universe that does not care (or even know) whether you are a minister or not - unless you actually do something which improves that world, however marginally, or unless, by being big-headed or incompetent, or both, you do something that infuriates the world.
3 Remember you are an MP. Quite near to your Department is the House of Commons, filled with hundreds of colleagues in your own party who believe, quite possibly rightly, that it is they and not you who should be the minister. Ted Leadbitter, MP for Hartlepool and nemesis of Anthony Blunt, was convinced that he rather than anyone else in the world ought to be Secretary of State for Defence. Frank Tomney, obscure (though not obscure enough) MP for Hammersmith, in the interstices of blackguarding homosexuals and demanding the death penalty, never forgave Harold Wilson for not making him Foreign Secretary.
So treat your MP colleagues courteously, and pay grave attention to what they say, even if it is nonsense. At night, as you glide by the taxi-stand in your ministerial limousine, stop and ask backbenchers if any of them are going your way. After all, they have stayed late to vote to sustain the government of which you and, by perverse ill chance, not they, are a member.
4 Remember you are Labour. Some ministers believe that their appointment to office requires them to abandon anything so pretty as partisan considerations. Yet what was the point of your party winning the election, if not to offer something distinctively different from that of your rejected opponents? So remember that your party exists and should be heeded (even if not invariably truckled to).
Spread the word about the Government's high qualities (and your own concomitant virtues) among the party membership in the constituencies. You will find them predominantly sane, quite frequently sensible and sometimes possessing better ideas than your own. It was a group of party supporters, brought to meet me from Bristol by Dawn Primarolo, who gave me ideas for a Defence Diversification Agency to deal with the industrial consequences of disarmament.
5 Remember your constituents. They elect you. They can get rid of you. Do not take them for granted. One of my wiser parliamentary colleagues made the point succinctly: "You can be an MP without being a minister, but you can't be a minister without being an MP." One young fellow, appointed to junior ministerial office by Jim Callaghan, told his constituents that they would henceforth be seeing less of him. When the opportunity arose, at the very next election, they decided to see nothing of him at all and removed him from what had seemed to be a safe seat.
Returning from a ministerial trip to the United States to attend a tenants' association meeting in Manchester, I was told by one of my forthright female constituents, "I saw you on TV gallivanting in America." She then added, supplying the ultimate accolade: "Still, I've got to say it, we do see you here."
6 Be boss. By this I do not mean that you should be dominating, swaggering, bullying. Such attitudes get you nowhere, jeopardise your civil servants' loyalty, and are demeaning. On the other hand, civil servants' advice is not gospel. It is the best that can be proffered by individuals who are clever and experienced but who may not necessarily know what will work or what will be politically acceptable.
Always listen to advice but do not necessarily follow it. Only bad ministers blame the Civil Service, because only bad ministers let themselves be dominated by the Civil Service. After Labour lost in 1979, one former junior minister whined that he had been forced to answer written parliamentary questions in a way he had not wanted to. I found this odd, since ministers have to sign all such answers. Who had gripped his hand while he signed, I wondered.
Stephen Dorrell and Douglas Hogg got into such a mess about BSE because they listened to official advice without making a political judgement about the advice. John Major wrote me a partially untruthful letter on arms to Iraq - it featured in the Scott inquiry - not because he wanted to lie, but because he took at face value an official draft which was economical with the truth. As a minister you will certainly make lots of mistakes. It is better to make your own mistakes than someone else's.
7 Never take no for an answer. The official machinery has the capability to stitch ministers up. If you want to make a spending commitment and your own civil servants do not like it but cannot talk you out of it, they will be on like lightning to their counterparts in the Treasury. When you write to the Chief Secretary for authority for this expenditure, those Treasury counterparts will draft a letter for the Chief Secretary to sign turning you down.
Go and see him and try to talk him round. If he is adamant, take the matter to a Cabinet committee. Before the meeting, canvass every member of the committee. I am not talking theory here.
A few months ago I flew back from Edinburgh in the company of a Tory member of the National Heritage Select Committee aboard British Aerospace's 146 feeder-liner. I pointed out to him, smugly, that we were aboard that particular plane because of me. Officials both at my own Department of Industry and at the Treasury had assured me that this project, then embryonic, had no commercial future. Using the tactics recounted above, I nevertheless got approval and finance for it. The BAe 146 is now a winner, selling all over the world. I have been paid no commission.
8 Remember you are politically mortal. Believe it or not, even when you are riding on cloud nine after first being appointed, after you have scored a huge parliamentary debating success, after you have done well at question time (in the Commons) or on Question Time on the BBC, the day will come when you will stop being a minister.
If you disregard some of my rules you may be forced to resign (David Willetts being a signal example). If your face does not fit, you may be sacked. This happened to Douglas Jay as President of the Board of Trade. Harold Wilson decided Jay should go and told him so in his considerate way. Next day, Jay telephoned Wilson and announced that he had decided he would prefer to stay; Wilson had to explain that things did not quite work this way.
9 However you go, do not be bitter. The Commons has too many MPs who are bitter because they were ousted from junior opposition frontbench posts; bitter because they were not appointed to ministerial office, however lowly; bitter because they did not get the government job they wanted; bitter because they did not become Prime Minister. It is tedious for their colleagues and sad for them. So, remember that you are still an MP, which in itself is a huge honour, not to be attained by thousands of aspirants in the forthcoming general election.
Value the moments of glory you enjoyed. Bore those around you, as long as they will tolerate listening, by retailing your experiences. When everyone you know sidles away at the start of a sentence beginning, "When I was a minister", find a compliant publisher and write a book. You might even call it, somewhat arrogantly, How to be a Minister.
Gerald Kaufman's book, `How to be a Minister', is published on 3 February by Faber & Faber.
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