Leading Article: Leaks, damn leaks and unofficial briefings

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The Independent Online
Only in a political system as obsessed with secrecy as ours would reaction to the disclosure of Budget press releases have been as raucous and flappingly condemnatory. It says something discreditable about the temper of the times that commentators should have rushed to judge the Civil Service before there was any evidence of who might be responsible. The real point is surely that this ritual - the Chancellor's purdah, the bombshell announcements, the rush to respond to complex schemes within minutes - are no way to make financial policy changes. Budget-making is nowadays mere political manipulation, made possible only by the public's odd lack of curiosity in matters fiscal.

Too many people know far too little about how they pay tax and how much they pay. Budget flummery helps their ignorance and condones puerile competition (is Ken's bigger than Gordon's?) over cuts in direct taxation, affordable only by covert increases in indirect and payroll taxes. We do not know but rather suspect that the agent behind the escape of the Budget documents was not motivated by the case for reform. Even so, yesterday's political soap opera pointed up more than one contemporary oddity.

This is unlikely to be the last time a "leak" is alleged before the present Government finally runs out of steam. It is therefore important to get clear why Whitehall leaks are rarely the heinous offences of conventional wisdom. When Sir Bernard Ingham, exercising his vocal cords again yesterday with the abandon of an accomplished stage performer, used to release snippets of hitherto secret official information to his cronies in the parliamentary lobby, that, of course, was not leaking. And when the anonymous Parliamentary Private Secretary takes his journalist pal aside and whispers in his shell- like, that, too, is not to be called leaking - he is only advancing his political cause. And if the minister's special adviser (the main source of most "leaks") puts some sensitive document in a brown envelope, here again it's just playing the party game.

These are examples of politicians at work or, in Sir Bernard's case, politicians manques. What politicians do is subject - in our system - to only minimal rules, rarely enforced by a cowed House of Commons. When these politicians berate their civil servants, when they denigrate their work and tell them that the private sector would do what they do so much better - all that is considered part of the politician's prerogative. But the civil servant is still supposed to play his or her part and render utmost loyalty to the selfsame politician.

All organisations of any complexity only work if there is a residual amount of trust between staff at the top and staff at the bottom. The principled objection to leaking is that it destroys such trust and ultimately incapacitates the organisation. But trust runs two ways. Conservative ministers have - sometimes - acted as if the state were a garment to be worn casually and cast aside, torn or refashioned as they saw fit. They have rarely stopped to worry about the morale of the state's servants or whether they themselves deserved the trust they automatically expected from their officials.

As a matter of fact, most leaks that have occurred within Whitehall have involved staff at junior level. The clerk doing the photocopying, the official low in the pecking order who happens to see a set of papers - these are the usual suspects. They must, despite their low rank, be jolly clever, though, since over the years they have consistently evaded the clutches of the brightest minds in the Cabinet Office and the clever detectives of Special Branch, let alone the trained spy-hunters of the Security Service (which allegedly has been brought in to sniff out the leaker to the Daily Mirror). Some of those lowly staff belong to trade unions and some are, whisper it, politically motivated. But what is extraordinary is how few of them there are, given the strength still of trade unionism within the Civil Service and the ill-concealed fact that the ranks of the manual and clerical public service unions still contain people whose acquaintance with the collected works of Marx and Engels, let alone the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, were at one time intimate.

It is indeed a national wonder that so few leaks occur. The normally staid European Policy Forum has tried to whip up a storm about disloyalty among the mandarinate. On the contrary, what is remarkable is how doggedly loyal the senior Civil Service has been. It is indeed a moot point whether we ought not to worry more about the unimaginative obeisance paid by Whitehall's top men and women to the norms of administrative service. Sir Richard Scott may, just about, have cleared ministers of deliberately misleading the House of Commons over arms to Iraq, but there is plenty of evidence from the past 17 years that ministers are none too picky about how they use the vast amount of discretionary power that the system gives them. A few more doubts, a little more misgiving by senior civil servants would not have gone amiss. If Labour does inherit, Tony Blair and his chums will take charge of an organism with moral antennae that have come to seem worryingly numb.

The antidote to that, as to all deformations in any democratic system of government, is more external scrutiny, more participation by people in their own government. The precondition for that is more information, especially information about taxing and spending on the people's behalf. Britain, on the eve of the 21st century, confronts big questions - such as our willingness to pay for increasing levels of social expenditure. Honest spending policies, and the honest taxes to pay for them, will come only as we move away from traditional Budget-making. If the 1996 Budget scandal serves further to discredit the old ways, a useful public purpose will have been served.