By Matt.Ross

20 Mar 2011

Peter Hennessy has spent 40 years observing government. Now ensconced in the Lords, he tells Matt Ross what he’s learned about the need for confidence, the dangers of special advisers, and the joys of the awkward squad.

Every new generation of ministers arrives in Whitehall suspicious of the civil service machine, says Peter Hennessy. “Ministers arrive brimful of ideology and hope,” he explains. “They’ve absorbed the Crossman diaries and Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister whole, and believe there’s this silky conspiracy just waiting to envelop them and kill them with kindness and tender loving care.”

Some of the “more ideologically inflamed politicians”, he continues, believe that “it’s even more sinister than that, and there’s a centrist conspiracy” to preserve “the mixed economy, the welfare state: Beveridge plus Keynes”. Then the tall, white-haired lord sits back in his chair and gives a wicked grin. “That’s all balls, you know,” he says. “The notion that there’s an organised conspiracy is quite absurd.”

Peter Hennessy – Professor the Lord Peter Hennessy of Nympsfield, as he is these days – has watched several generations of ministers learn their way around Whitehall. In the 1970s he was a lobby reporter for the Financial Times, and the Times’s Whitehall correspondent; in the 80s, a journalist for the Economist, New Statesman and Independent; and since 1989, he’s been a professor of government and modern history – spending much of that period at London’s Queen Mary University. His books include Cabinet, Whitehall, The Hidden Wiring and The Prime Minister – all required reading for students of British government.

This background makes him immensely quotable – he knows what both students and journalists require. Yet Hennessy isn’t remotely calculating, and wears his learning lightly: no dusty academic, he has a tiggerish enthusiasm for his subject and an infectious grin. Ensconced in his eyrie of an office, high above a Lords courtyard, he argues that ministers should learn to love the civil service. It’s a wonderful British institution, he argues – and one with three crucial strengths.

Crowning glories
The first of these strengths is “the notion that the people who staff our crown services are there because of their capabilities, not their convictions: the merit principle”, says Hennessy. “The civil service still recruits on the basis of merit; it hasn’t thrown in the towel and allowed itself to become politicised.”

Secondly, there’s what he calls the “public service impulse”. Bright young graduates don’t go into the civil service for the money, Hennessy argues – performance-related pay, he believes, is “nonsense for the senior civil service”, because “the best of them are not motivated by it”. Instead, they’re attracted by the “intrinsic importance and fascination of the work”: a motivating force that inspires great loyalty, honesty and commitment among civil servants.

Thirdly, Hennessy praises the “duty of speaking truth unto power”. This aspect of the civil service’s work, he acknowledges, “irritates a lot of people”. “Ministers get very cross, because they come up against clever people who’ve been there a long time and say: ‘It’s not as simple as that. You need to think about this, that and the other’. As [post-war Labour chancellor] Hugh Dalton said when he lost it with the Treasury: ‘You’re just a lot of congenital snag-hunters!’”

Yet while civil servants’ role as snag-hunters sometimes upsets politicians, Hennessy argues, it’s “the golden thread” that runs through British governance. “If we let that slip, it would be a tragedy,” he says. “We need self-confident crown servants who will speak truth unto power, whatever the cost to them in terms of jarring relationships.” This testing, questioning role may drive ministers crazy, Hennessy believes, but it’s essential to good policy-making – and self-confident ministers turn it to their advantage: “They have to listen to civil servants’ advice and test it out, probe it, ask for clarifications: stretch them, in the way one would as a university teacher with an extremely bright student,” he says. “It’s a rolling conversation in the governing marriage, and it does require self-confidence all round. Officials much prefer the self-confident minister to those who are edgy or a pushover.”

The advice vice
Sometimes, Hennessy warns, the less confident ministers can feel so uncomfortable in that governing marriage that they rely too heavily on imported special advisers; something that results in a very awkward ménage a trois. In part, this is a response to an increasingly voracious, shallow and personality-focused media: many of the broadsheets have shed much of their expertise in how Whitehall operates, Hennessy says with regret, finding that “it’s much easier to focus on the politics and the personality clashes than the slog of examining this huge estate of the realm.”

Unfortunately, says Hennessy, in response to these shifts in the media ministers can build around themselves “protective layers of special advisers”, which “create a weather system that reinforces the worst tendencies of the political class: an obsession with who’s out to get them, both in the opposition and in their own party. I love the political class: they’re indispensable. But they have their own little ways, and if the special advisers encourage still more of those little ways, we’re in real trouble.”

Where ministers allow special advisers to come between them and civil servants, Hennessy adds, they fail to build trust in their officials: “It reinforces that tendency to see these conspiracies lurking; to see evidence that the smoothy lifers are ganging up on them in their silken, concealed way.” Then ministers “become obsessed with how things will play in the media” – and policies are designed around that over-riding objective.

“But what’s the point of reinforcing yourself with ex-student politicians who’ll just tell you how wonderful you are, and what rats the opposition are for not understanding the beauty of your policies?” asks Hennessy. “If I was a secretary of state, I’d surround myself with older, experienced people who’ve been around the block a bit – people who’d spare me nothing – rather than people who want to come up the political class route and be in my shoes in ten years’ time.”

In a mad rush
So Lord Hennessy – an evidently confident individual – urges both civil servants and ministers to themselves be confident, lest “jagged relationships between the governing tribes produce an awful ecology”. Unfortunately, he thinks he sees in the coalition’s tightly-packed legislative programme “a sign of great insecurity”.

The government is overwhelming Parliament’s capacity to produce good law by pushing through such a mass of major legislation that “much of it comes here, to the House of Lords, from the House of Commons in a semi-finished state”, Hennessy warns (see news section). “These enormous ground-breaking, scene-shifting bills are just shoved down, one after the other,” he adds, complaining that the consequent mistakes are bringing “the whole process into disrepute”.

“I have great sympathy for the parliamentary draftsmen; they’re people of immense skill and they do the best they can in the circumstances,” he says. But he urges the government to “get a grip” on the amount of major legislation being squeezed through Parliament. Only interventions by select committees and the House of Lords, he believes, are bringing new bills up to scratch before they pass into law. “Without those fall-back groups – the select committees, this place – we’d be in real trouble,” he says.

But what about the civil service: shouldn’t they be heading off poor law by speaking truth unto power? “Some of my civil service friends who were in office when Labour came to power in 1997 have said: ‘We bent over backwards too far to show that we weren’t in the pockets of their outgoing rivals, and we should have been tougher with them’. There were insufficient caveats and ‘wait a minutes’,” Hennessy comments. “There’s always a danger of that after a long period of government by one party. But the best of them have always managed to speak truth under power without flattening the secretary of state; it’s the way they do it.”

Low self-confidence all round
Perhaps, Hennessy suggests, the civil service is a little less ready to stand up to ministers these days. “It’s much less confident than it was when I was first watching it in the 1970s,” he recalls. In those days, Whitehall’s upper echelons comprised people who’d grown up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and implemented the post-war settlement. “They were a very special generation,” says Hennessy. “They’d come in hardened, but quite optimistic. Ian Bancroft, head of the home civil service in the late ’70s and early ’80s, said: ‘We were the generation for whom everything was possible.’ Out of those tough experiences we got a very tough, very distinctive generation.”

Even the tough, though, can meet the tougher: Bancroft was pushed out in 1981, having earned Margaret Thatcher’s displeasure. In his Independent obituary in 1986, veteran Labour politician Tam Dalyell wrote: “He went to the stake on the principle of the duty of civil servants to give unpalatable advice to ministers.” Tellingly, Dalyell added that Bancroft was convinced that “In order to perform its role effectively, the service had to be self-confident.”

Nowadays, Hennessy continues, those at the top of the civil service are “like me: the great beneficiaries of that post-war settlement. We had more health, education and welfare pumped into us than any generation before – and in relative terms, I fear, any generation to come.

Many of us were products of the grammar schools: we’re Rab Butler’s children.” Today’s young people, he adds, don’t have anything like those opportunities: “My students are much more realistic, in a way, than we were. The times are much tougher: the jobs aren’t for life; the pensions aren’t really there. Maybe they’re more illusion-free.”

Managing change
If today’s civil service leaders aren’t quite as powerful or robust as their forebears, they’re also distracted from political and policymaking work by their roles as the managers of very large delivery organisations. Much of the state has comprised “huge public businesses ever since the labour exchanges were created in 1909”, says Hennessy. To fulfil this role, the civil service has improved its professional and managerial skills – something which Hennessy applauds; and he’s relaxed about outsourcing “as long as the intrinsic values of the public service can be put out with the contract. You can debate the most desirable set of instruments for achieving what Parliament has voted will be.”

Hennessy does, however, condemn the management-speak that has arrived along with those management skills. The civil service “needed the best of the private sector management techniques that fitted, and it did need to bring in some properly qualified people, but it didn’t need to lose its language in the process,” he says, with real anger. “The English language is most adept at conveying meaning, but there’s been contagion by the management schools and the business consultants. What an own goal! If you contaminate the language of exchange you’ve had it, because meaning is squeezed out.”

“Every new civil service recruit should be given a copy of George Orwell’s 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’,” he continues. “Circumlocution, jargon – all the contaminants are in there. It’s fine to send them on management courses, but you’ve got to give them a decontamination unit in their pocket as they go in to listen to this incomprehensible bollocks!”

The resistance movements
Despite all these changes, Hennessy clearly has great faith in our civil service. He accepts, though, that it can be a blocker of change: “There’s a fine line sometimes between speaking truth unto power and being the most beautifully-designed resistance movement,” he says. “In my darker – I hope slightly humorous moments – I could list the resistance movements in the United Kingdom.”

The civil service is one, of course; Oxford University is another. And there’s a third: Hennessy’s new home, the House of Lords. Having observed the Lords from the outside for 40-plus years – and, during that period, rethought his own view that it should be fully elected – Hennessy is full of praise for the acuity and expertise of its members. Its work in improving the coalition’s over-hasty legislation, he says, is “a great defence for having a House of Lords of the kind we’ve got. You’ve got people here who really know things; who can try and mitigate the consequences of this rush.” In helping to ensure that officials aren’t tasked with implementing bad law, he adds, “The thinking capacity of the Lords is a great ally to the civil service.”

Asked how he thinks the interminable process of Lords reform should move forward, he says: “The big test for me is [journalist and author] Walter Bagehot’s 1867 one: it’s got to be a house of respected revisers. You’ve got to have a large element of people in here from an amazing range of backgrounds – as it is currently. It’s a remarkable confluence of human capital, and it’s going to be very hard to replicate that if it’s elected. You’re not going to get the chiefs of the defence staff and the ex-cabinet secretaries and these hugely distinguished physicians and surgeons standing for political parties. They’re not partisan people.”

Nick Clegg’s well-meaning attempts to reform the Lords, Hennessy fears, may undermine the chamber’s crucial role as a repository of knowledge and non-partisan debate. “Here, by historical accident, you’ve got this remarkable cluster of people; this very rich legislative compost,” he says. “And what are we going to do? Throw it away? I don’t believe we are; I’ll believe it when I see it. But there’s going to be a lot of nervous exhaustion going around. Nick Clegg will be preaching away. He’s a nice man, but I don’t think he’s got the feel for all this.”

Spinning the gyroscope
So is Hennessy now a full part of the Establishment that he’s studied and scrutinised for so long? Have his old journalistic instincts completely given way to the defence of this ancient British institution? He pauses; but only for a second – then he’s carried away again on another wave of enthusiasm. “I love it here, because the people are so interesting and I learn a lot; it’s the most agreeable form of adult education I’ve ever experienced,” he replies. “And I want the state to work well, and the legislation to be good, and ministers to succeed – but at the same time, there’s the old journalistic impulse to say: ‘Wait a minute, that doesn’t add up. What’s going on?’ The fires are not entirely banked.”

Our great institutions, Hennessy argues, create in British politics and society a “gyroscopic effect”: a stabilising influence that maintains continuity as we adapt to change. His “resistance movements” are crucial to this – “and the critics would say they’re too good at creating that balance, that caution; but a self-confident country would want strong institutions,” he says. “Not so strong that they paralyse each other, in the way the US Congress is paralysed, but confident institutions that know what they’re there for, and are not averse to listening to each other and the people they exist to serve.”

To make these institutions work well, he believes, “We need very confident secretaries of state, special advisers who are recruited because they know things rather than believe things, and a crown service that is prepared to speak truth unto power – then the system is self-raising, like flour.” In the Lords, he argues, we need a blend of mutual respect, constructive contributions and sceptical scrutiny; the kind of blend – though he doesn’t say it himself – provided by people such as Peter Hennessy. And in the civil service, Hennessy concludes, “We really need people saying: ‘Wait a minute. Have you thought about this? Have you thought about what that will do?’ We need those congenital snag-hunters.”

CV Highlights

1969: Graduates from St John’s College, Cambridge
1972: Joins Times Higher Education Supplement as a reporter
1976: Moves to the Financial Times as lobby correspondent; returns to the Times on Whitehall beat, then as leader writer
1989: Made Visiting Professor of Government, Strathclyde University
1992: Joins Queen Mary University as Professor of Contemporary History
2001: Becomes Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary
2010: Enters the Lords as Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield

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