Tony Blair bemoans ‘unresponsive’ Whitehall bureaucracy
Former prime minister salutes civil service professionalism and crisis management but says it is poor at delivering change
Tony Blair Credit: PA
Tony Blair has spoken of his frustration at Whitehall’s capacity to deliver change in day-to-day public services and said he had no regrets over the burgeoning use of special advisers that took place during his premiership.
The New Labour prime minister, who spent a decade in Downing Street from 1997, saluted the professionalism of the civil service, particularly in terms of its ability to react to crises, but said it was “inadequate” at managing change.
Blair was speaking to Whitehall historian Lord Peter Hennessy for BBC Radio 4’s “Reflections” series of interviews, broadcast today.
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He told Hennessy of the frustration he had felt following the transition from opposition to power and how Labour remained in “campaigning mode” once in government.
“We came in as this group of people who had changed the Labour Party and upended British politics, so for the first period I think – yes – we governed more in that mode,” he said.
“As time went on, I think we came to a more measured position. I do think there was a genuine problem with the way the bureaucracy in government operated.
“What I learned about bureaucracy is that it’s great at managing things but not great at changing things. If you had a crisis, there is nothing better than that British system: It kicked in; it operated to a high degree of quality, and on numerous occasions I had cause to be really thankful to it.
“But when it came to how do you do health service reform or education reform, or – I remember – the early battles I had in reforming asylum and immigration policy, I found it frankly just unresponsive.”
Blair said the 1980s TV comedy Yes, Prime Minister was “part documentary” from his experience because it reflected how the system could work, and stood by the growth in the use of special advisers that took place while he was prime minister.
“I don’t accept that we were wrong to bring in special advisers and to make the system work differently,” he said.
“This was a constant debate between myself and people like [then cabinet secretary] Richard Wilson.
“You can get to a more balanced perspective where you’re liberating those people within the bureaucracy who do want to make change and who are enthusiastic behind an agenda of change.”
Blair said he believed bureaucracies needed to be treated with respect, but risked making governments their prisoners. He cited one Yes, Prime Minister-worthy moment.
“I remember one of my very early presentations that I got in Downing Street was when they came in to give me a presentation on crime and the system and basically said ‘look, when unemployment goes up, crime goes up’, which is the usual thing,” he said.
“Then I said, ‘but unemployment’s falling’. They said, ‘yes but when unemployment falls people are more wealthy, they’ve got more consumer goods and there’s more to steal’. So I said, ‘so basically crime just carries on going up’, and they said ‘well, more or less’.”
Elsewhere in the conversation with Hennessy Blair talked about his early infatuation with Trotskyism, the Iraq War, and said the so-called “Granita pact” with Gordon Brown, where they agreed Brown would remain shadow chancellor and not challenge Blair for the Labour leadership in 1994, had not been sealed at the north London restaurant which gave it its name, but in Edinburgh.
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