Leading article: Why the Civil Service needs a political elite

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When Harold Wilson entered Downing Street in 1964, he took Marcia Williams with him. And that was that. It was not until the following year that he hired a press secretary, one Gerald Kaufman. Mrs Williams, now Baroness Falkender, was, as she claimed the other day, "Jonathan Powell, Peter Mandelson, Anji Hunter and Alastair Campbell rolled into one". And a few more besides, she was too modest to mention. Sally Morgan has inherited her formal title of political secretary, and Tony Blair has brought at least another 20 staff from outside into his office.

This has thrown the Civil Service top brass into a harrumph. A chap called Sir Michael Betts, of whom we had not previously heard but whose job is apparently to safeguard the integrity of public servants, warned against politicising Whitehall. Funny we did not hear from him in nearly two decades of Conservative rule. The issue is broader than that of Mr Blair's office, since Labour has drafted in a whole fleet of temporary civil servants across all government ministries, mostly from shadow cabinet offices but also from the party's Millbank Tower election headquarters and the private sector. The number of "special advisers" (party-political appointees in civil service jobs) is claimed to have broken the limits set by the previous government. To which the response ought to be not instant condemnation but to ask, are those limits right?

Meanwhile, attention has focused on the case of Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's "chief of staff", who was going to become the Prime Minister's private secretary. This is an important post, and it has always been occupied by a civil servant. Again, we should not throw up our hands in reflex horror but ask, is that right?

In both cases, the answer is no. The new government was elected to make (limited) changes and it should not be denied the tools to get on with the job. The idea that incoming ministers should abandon the infrastructure which supported them as they made their plans for running the country, at the very moment that they start doing it, is frankly outdated. The limits on special advisers should be relaxed so that new ministers can both bring their teams with them and advisers from wherever they see fit.

As for Mr Powell, it is essential that he should be the Prime Minister's private secretary - and it is disappointing that Mr Blair seems to have retreated on the matter of job titles. There will, as we report today, continue to be both a private secretary (career bureaucrat) and a chief of staff (Mr Powell). What is important is that Mr Powell should be, if not in name at least in reality, the interface between the PM and the Civil Service. Peter Hennessy, a constitutional historian normally much admired by this newspaper, argues: "It is vital that this post is occupied by a thoroughly independent figure and not some wholly politicised satrap." But, with the respect that is due, that is a pile of satrap. A "thoroughly independent" figure like Mr Powell's brother Sir Charles, perhaps, who was Margaret Thatcher's private secretary? The idea that Sir Charles suppressed his personal view of, say, European monetary union, while offering "disinterested" advice can only be believed by higher theologians of bureaucratic mysticism.

According to Professor Hennessy, the PM's private secretary "is responsible for handling all security intelligence, advice on the honours list and dealings with Buckingham Palace". So what? The last person Mr Blair needs when it comes to abolishing knighthoods, for example, is some career civil servant suffering the etiquette equivalent of foot-binding.

Of course, there are limits. There are some ideals of the British civil service tradition which must be defended or even restored. The culture of the clever but neutral public servant is a valuable one. Civil servants ought to be able to offer unwelcome advice - or to blow the whistle on ministerial wrongdoing - without fear for their prospects. Although we did not see much of the mythical independence of the service in such matters as the sale of arms to Iraq or the Tisdall and Ponting affairs. Above all, the concept of recruitment and promotion on merit is a bulwark against croneyism and corruption. What ought to be made clearer, however, is that it must accommodate a political command structure at the top to allow government to govern.

The diaries of the Wilson era make it plain how poorly prepared Labour ministers were in the Sixties, and how the few plans they had were often frustrated by determined civil service resistance. Mrs Williams fought a running battle against the bureaucratic machine which sought total control over the Prime Minister's personal space.

None of that applies this time. Clearly some senior panjandrums have had their noses put out of joint by the arrival of large numbers of excruciatingly young staff. But it is quite obvious that, at more junior levels, most civil servants are delighted to have a new government. So Mr Blair does not need to impose a tier of his political appointees in order to police obstreperous jobsworths. But it is a good idea, with caveats, if only because Labour developed in opposition many of the skills that a modern government needs. Next to the technology of Peter Mandelson's "war room" in the election campaign, much of the Civil Service seems to be still in the steam age.

The caveats are that the boundaries between political and civil service appointments must be clearly drawn, and that there should be no increase in the amount of taxpayers' money used to pay for political appointees. As Lady Falkender enviously observed, Mr Blair's office in opposition was "awash with money", and no doubt much of that money will be used to pay for the growth of staff numbers at 10 Downing Street. Provided it is raised in an open way, this is a positive good. It will help sweep away the stuffy, conservative culture of the higher civil service exemplified by one retiring mandarin who commented to Sir Edward Bridges that what he had learnt from his experience was "to distinguish between various shades of grey".