Opinion: Lib Dems should say “No, Minister” to Tory plans to politicise the Civil Service

An initiative by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, should be a cause of considerable alarm for Liberal Democrats. According to the Independent, Maude has proposed a massive expansion of politically-appointed civil servants. The details are rather sketchy. But it seems obvious that if Francis Maude gets his way it will hugely reduce the effectiveness of government.

There are countless problems with an apolitical Civil Service. It is traditionally seen as a bastion of Establishment moderation and elitism. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest this has more than a grain of truth. The success of Yes, Minister was so enormous because, to a great degree, of its accuracy. The memoirs of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and many other politicians all point to excessive caution on behalf of the civil service causing delays to plans that turned out to be a success. Meanwhile, many senior civil servants have themselves expressed a distrust of political radicalism in their public statements and memoirs. They are only bureaucrats after all, and bureaucrats, on the whole, do not like change.

But history shows that this only makes a difference if governments allow it to do so. Margaret Thatcher constantly complained about civil servants disrupting her work- well, it didn’t stop her utterly transforming Britain. More notable still is the post-war government of Clement Attlee. His reforms were in many ways more radical than those of Thatcher- and he achieved them without a single political civil servant.

Perhaps in modern politics ministers need faster responses to a 24-hour media. But this has nothing to do with politicisation. The civil service could do the job perfectly well. Besides, is it really any good for politics to be controlled by politicians’ media-management? We have only to look to the experience of New Labour to find the answer to that.

Where does this leave the Liberal Democrats? We rightly point to how being in government is an act of maturity, showing we can run things just as well- if not better- than the big two. And a sign of that maturity is something Labour, and now apparently the Conservatives, have difficulty handling: a Civil Service that provides impartial, cautious advice, regardless of party. But advisers advise and ministers decide, and a genuinely Liberal, radical minister will have the guts to ignore the advice if she thinks it’s wrong or over-cautious. She does not need a special adviser to tell her what to think. It ought to be obvious from her political beliefs and years of campaigning.

Clement Attlee, in retirement, was asked whether civil servants run the country. It depends on the ministers, he replied. “If the ministers have any strength of character, they run it. If they’re weak, they accept what the civil servant says.” We would do well to take his advice in our own dealings in government.

* Robin McGhee is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Kensington.

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  • I think we should be very nervous about plans that would politicise the civil service. Plans that did actually make senior civil servants a bit more accountable for the consequences of their action wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing though. Looking at the Permanent Secretary class it does often look that no matter how incompetent there reign over a department is it is no barrier to good jobs and lots of honours. Sir John Gieve’s failures running the Home Office were no barrier to him being made a Deputy Governor of the Bank of England for example.

  • jenny barnes 2nd Aug '12 - 10:19am

    ” a genuinely Liberal, radical minister will have the guts to ignore the advice if she thinks it’s wrong or over-cautious. ”

    And we’ve demonstrated this with our policy on accreditation for this year’s conference. Oh. Wait.

  • Richard Shaw 2nd Aug '12 - 11:54am

    The Whitehall civil service is still geared towards command and control, not wanting to give away their power and position. One only has to look at how each time the latest Sustainable Communities Act regulations were brought forward by Mark Harper, the civil service watered them down, so that localism campaigners repeatedly had to ask for them to be redone.

    I think we should look to Palmerston who, as a Liberal Prime Minister, did much for administrative efficiency and meritocratisation of the civil service. I think as Lib Dems we should look to break up and redistribute the central civil service to the regions and to local government, with only those jobs and departments that actually need to be in London being based there. This would do much to open up the service to those unable to relocate to the capital, maybe decrease the wage bill (no more London weighting/subsidy) and weaken the centralising tendency within the service.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Aug '12 - 12:11pm

    This is very interesting, but the actual story says that “Mr Maude will … commission … research”. Maude may be a very silly man, but that is a long way from “proposed a massive expansion of politically-appointed civil servants”.

    In a democracy like ours a politician is elected to do a job, which always involves pushing through change. To achieve that, a civil service is needed that will implement the change intelligently – identifying all possible flaws and objections and managing them appropriately. Civil servants are people, and the ones to best implement changes demanded by a Tory minister will not necessarily have the best skills to implement the quite different changes demanded by a LibDem or Labour one. The first two points to be considered by the enquiry seem very reasonable in this context.

    I suggest it is also reasonable to consider appointing policy advisers and press officers politically. The idea that a civil servant provides apolitical policy advice seems to me to be something of a joke.

    One of the things that an enquiry should look at, of course, is the familiar “unintended consequences”. One would be expansion of rampant corruption. Another would be the possibility of yes-people being appointed who may operate less effectively on account of their financial dependency on the minister. I imagine that the US, Australian, and NZ cases can illuminate, and I hope the enquiry also looks at Russia, China, India, and all of our European partners too.

  • David Allen 2nd Aug '12 - 4:03pm

    Good post. Politicians of all parties are prone to groupthink, to rose-tinted spectacles, to believing that if something appeals to one’s political principles, that thing should be done. Civil servants are there, amongst other things, to knock crazy ideas on the head and tell Ministers where to get off, when what they want to do is just not practicable. They are far from perfect at that job, but, making them party toadies will ensure that they become a lot worse.

  • The Attlee quote is all very well and good, all else being equal. But it strikes me that with a permanent secretary having maybe thirty or forty years of experience in ‘handling’ their ministerial colleagues, not to mention an inside-out knowledge of the civil service bureaucracy without which a usually rather inexperienced minister could achieve nothing, all else is certainly not equal. No matter how strong-willed the minister might be, its not exactly a fair fight.

    The thing to be careful of is returning to a kind of spoils system where everything is politicised for party gain. But I don’t think that clearing out the permanent secretaries after every election as a check against institutional inertia is necessarily a bad idea.

  • Claire Tyler 4th Aug '12 - 10:27am

    Civil servants, rather like bankers, estate agents and these days of course politicians, rarely get a good press. Because of their constitutional position, they also have little opportunity to answer their critics directly. Speaking as someone who was a civil servant working with Ministers of various politicial persuasions for just under 20 years, I find that much of the criticism of intertia, caution and over reliance on bureacratic processess is mis-informed and based on little understanding of how the Minister/civil servant relationship works in practice.

    It was inevitable that Lib Dem Ministers ministers came to power with very little practical experience to draw on, although very considerable experience of how the councillor/local government relationship works which surely should have provided some pointers. In my experience when the relationship works well and both understand and respect each other’s role, it can be highly productive and help translate a political manifesto into concrete actions and radical change on the ground. I came across very few civil servants who didn’t want to do a good job for their Minster but, like all relationships, it requires some work on both sides establish and sustain them. It requires civil servants to have good political antennae and make sure they fully understand the underlying political philosophy of their Ministers and for Ministers to be able to accept advice on how policies can best be implemented without becoming defensive, and then make their final decisions which must ofcourse be theirs alone. But the reality is that the way that things happen in Whitehall, unless you have civil servants firmly on side navigating their way through the numerous hurdles of negotiations with the Treasury, Cabinet Office/No 10 and securing the cross governent agreement through Cabinet Committees that all major decisions need, very little gets done.

    A good permanent secretary should both ensure that MInisters receive high quality advice which allows them to achieve their policy goals in a practical and cost effective way including pointing up clearly what won’t work and why, AND provide robust private advice when Ministers are either seeking to exceed their authority or demanding to do things which are patently undoable. These are essential checks and balances in any democratic system. Actually I don’t have any problem with Ministers having a greater say in their choice of Permanent Secretary – the chemistry has to work – or to a limited number of senior policy posts coming up for change when a new administration arrives. However I am wholly opposed to the notion of wholesale outsourcing of policy advice – including to the private sector -which Francis Maude and Steve Hilton have been musing on. Conflict of interest or what?!

    In my view Lib Dem politicians will have finally come of age when they understand the importance of this relationship, know how to use it to best advantage in terms of achieving of Lib Dem political objectives and are prepared to stand up for the public service ethos which a largely impartial civil service represents and the contibution it makes to a healthy democracy. To me that would be a living embodiment of Lib Dem values.

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