Leading Article: The sale of Sir Humphrey

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THE revolution rolls on. Assailed by troubles on all sides - heavy election defeats, splits over Europe, a populace in dudgeon over rising taxes - the Conservatives turn to privatisation, their old trusty. They may feel queasy about some aspects of the 1980s, such as the growth of inequality and poverty, which are linked, in the public if not the ministerial mind, with rising crime and beggars on the street. Privatisation is another matter. It makes the public happy, because they associate it with the opportunity to buy shares cheap and sell them at a profit. It makes the Treasury happy, because the proceeds replenish the state coffers. It makes John Major happy, because he can show that he is brave enough to tackle state concerns that even Margaret Thatcher hesitated to touch. It makes the contenders for the Tory leadership happy, because they can show off their ideological virility to the backbenches. So the Royal Mail and Parcelforce are in the privatisers' sights, as are parts of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. You may think all this amazing enough, but you ain't seen nothing yet. The Sir Humphreys in Whitehall, it seems, are next on the list.

Proposals to privatise the Civil Service sound so fantastic and fanatical that one is forced to recall Communist regimes sending professors to collectivised farms, or perhaps some old Monty Python sketch. But, according to a report in the Independent last week, some members of the Cabinet want to go as far as New Zealand, where even policy advice has been privatised: the top civil servants no longer advise ministers in the traditional sense but have become 'chief executive officers' who 'sell output'. This market babytalk may seem inoffensive. But the practical implications are enormous. New Zealand's ministers are 'clients' of their departments who 'purchase' services. If they are not satisfied, if they do not get the advice they want to hear, the ministers can take their custom elsewhere. The whole notion of public servants providing honest, impartial and comprehensive advice goes out of the window. Only the braver public servants will alert ministers to the pitfalls of their favourite policies.

Here is an example of how the privatisation ideology can divert attention from matters that genuinely need attention. The administrative class of the British Civil Service has long been too conservative, rigid and inward-looking. Its recruitment base - the holders of Oxbridge firsts and upper seconds in arts subjects - is too narrow; there is too little movement in and out of Whitehall; promotion is based too much on seniority, too little on merit. Politicians of all parties, and many civil servants themselves, have been agreed on all this for at least 25 years. A White Paper on the subject will be welcome. But the Government has become incapable of forming any policy without reference to its equivalent of Mao's Red Guards at the Adam Smith Institute. Trying to make the Civil Service into some equivalent of a Covent Garden restaurant, where you send the steak back if it is not cooked to your specification, turns the whole question of overdue reform into one of unnecessary political contention.

It also turns it into a constitutional issue. Ministers may enviously cast their eyes across the Atlantic, where successive Presidents bring their own teams of civil servants and hire and fire at will. But America has a written constitution, which places severe limits on executive powers; it also has strong regional and local government. Here, the Civil Service, for all its imperfections, has become almost the only element of stability and continuity that is free from outright party political control. Its procedures, its accumulated knowledge, its reverence for precedent make it an increasingly precious part of our unwritten constitution. As Peter Hennessy has put it, governments are supposed to regard it as 'a borrowed asset' - but the Tories, who have been profligate with many of the nation's assets, have never really understood the concept. As we report today, the extent to which British public life is in the hands of quangos - many of them controlled by Tory sympathisers who have either never stood for election or have been specifically turned down by the voters - has reached alarming proportions. The privatisation of the Civil Service would be another grievous blow to our democratic traditions.