By Joshua.Chambers

23 Jan 2014

When 1984 arrived, it didn’t neatly fit George Orwell’s vision of a cowed population kept in line by the feared Thought Police. But as Joshua Chambers discovers in that year’s Cabinet Papers, it’s not hard to find parallels.

Some events from the 1980s have an uncanny similarity to those of the present day, while others seem strangely alien to those absorbed in today’s culture and politics. Both kinds, though, can provide civil servants with fascinating insights into the pressures on their forebears, and a better understanding of the potential benefits and pitfalls of current changes.

The recent release of the 1984 cabinet papers by The National Archives reveals that some of the tides of civil service reform then flowed in the same direction as they do today. The backdrops too look similar, though some of the conditions appear quite reversed in the distorting mirror of time. So although the 1984 and the present day share a government commitment to austerity and a heavy reliance on monetary policy, in the 1980s the Thatcher government was using high interest rates to attack punishing inflation rates, whilst nowadays low rates are being used to boost spending and house prices. In both 1984 and 2013, growth was anaemic, averaging just below 1% across the year, and with a negative dip in the second quarter.

Also, the Thatcher government – like many current Tory ministers – was determined to shrink the size of the state. A note called Cabinet: Points to Make for Mrs Thatcher, produced in 1979 by her principal private secretary Kenneth Stowe, says that “the tone of this administration must be to reduce the area of government, not increase it. In every department there will be activities which can be cut and should be cut. The electorate expects nothing less of us. Everyone in your department must be clear that we are going to be rigorous in our examination of all government activities.”

Civil service numbers were tumbling throughout the Parliament, and ultimately reached their lowest level since the Second World War – a record since, of course, broken by the coalition. A memo from the Treasury shows that civil service numbers were forecast to fall 6% from 630,000 to 593,000 by 1988. This prompted much resistance from the unions – another parallel with today, though today’s civil servants aren’t (we hope) subjected to scrutiny on the basis that they might be communist sympathisers (see box below).

These conditions, along with public criticism of the civil service by ministers, had strained relationships between officials and ministers. On becoming prime minister, Margaret Thatcher said she wanted to “de-privilege the civil service,” which went down very poorly with mandarins as it implied their terms and conditions were unduly high. The prime minister was “unimpressed by very clever people being in the civil service and not being out helping UK plc,” explains Dr Jon Davis of Queen Mary, University of London.

By 1984, this atmosphere had started to take its toll. What happened next is a window into the pressures the civil service may face as the economy starts to improve, and private sector pay levels pick up whilst public sector salaries remain frozen. A memo from cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong to the prime minister, dated October 1984, notes that defence secretary Michael Heseltine “mentioned in Cabinet the other day his concern about the implications for the efficiency of the public service of the fact that the level of pay increases for management staff in the private sector has recently greatly exceeded the level of pay increases for ‘comparable’ people in the public service, so that the civil service is seen to have fallen even further behind the private sector than before.”

Heseltine’s department had lost three of its best young high-fliers that year, and he passed on their resignation letters to indicate the problems his department was experiencing. Indeed, Armstrong’s note adds that “the wastage is not confined to bright young administrators and scarcity groups like computer programmers. The Ministry of Defence are also losing an alarming number of scientists.”

The resignation letters all state that, while civil servants were happy with the work they were doing, they felt that their salary and public status were not comparable with private sector roles. One wrote: “I feel that the status and esteem of the civil service in the public eye has been diminished to such an extent that it is now almost an embarrassment to admit to being a civil servant. Government pronouncements on, and attitude to, public service give no cause for comfort – indeed I expect the climate to get colder still.” Another had the same concerns, adding that “I am personally in sympathy with many of [the government’s] objectives. But there is a world of difference between its performance as a government and its record as an employer [their underlining]. As a line manager, I have found it increasingly difficult to justify its actions to my staff. And as an employee, I am not surprised that so many should feel demoralised and disenchanted.”

Armstrong wrote to Thatcher that “if these trends continue unchecked, the implications for the efficiency and morale of the civil service in ten years’ time could be extremely serious.” He suggested that the public/private earnings gap be considered in 1985’s pay settlement, and also said that ministers should use “whatever opportunities are open to them publically to comment on the work of the civil service and the management changes which are in train: it would do much to reassure the feeling [sic] of the civil service, though it would no doubt be difficult to persuade the media that there was much general news value in such speeches.” Plus ça change!

A further problem experienced at that time was a shortage of opportunities for younger staff. Numerous documents note poor morale caused by the fact that a senior cadre of civil servants weren’t moving on, whilst the number of posts was declining. (Today, by contrast, turnover in senior posts is high across all departments.)

To tackle its problem, 1984’s Treasury put forward an unusual idea: spending £6m to fund early retirement for 100 people, it said, “would buy us 500 or 600 promotions, as a result of the consequential movements through the hierarchy”. A paper was commissioned to determine various options. Three were outlined: permission for civil servants to retire at 55, provided they had served for 30 years; retirement at will at any age; or retirement after completion of a fixed period of service. Another document considered emulating the French government, which “ruthlessly exploits the patronage at its disposal” by appointing senior civil servants as special advisers to the prime minister. Civil servants also considered a “limited life return ticket”, giving individuals the option to resign, pursue a career elsewhere, and return within a five-year period if that wasn’t going particularly well. “This could either be a right of return in the same grade or, conceivably (as their contemporaries progress) to the next grade,” the paper noted.

Chancellor Nigel Lawson passed the suggestions to the prime minister, highlighting the relatively low £6m cost, but Thatcher was unimpressed, stating that £6m is “a lot of money” (her underlining), and calling for more evidence of promotion problems and low morale.

In a notable inversion of current policy, documents also called for a relaxation of central controls over departments. A Cabinet Office review team wrote in December 1983 that “unnecessary central prescription of rules and procedures should not inhibit sensible management freedom,” adding that “this is not just a matter of departments giving more freedom to line management but of relaxing controls in the personnel field by Treasury and [Cabinet Office] over departments”. These freedoms included the ability for departments to manage their own recruitment, appraisals, probation and performance management. This is the exact opposite of reforms currently being pursued by the Cabinet Office.

These documents show how the tides of reform ebb and flow: centralisation was ebbing, with departments gaining more control. Some problems too change over time: low senior staff turnover is certainly not a problem in 2014, but we still worry about up-and-coming managers disappearing off into the private sector. A key lesson here is, as the civil service commissioner Sir David Normington said last week, if civil service salaries don’t keep up with those in the private sector, there’s a very real risk of a brain drain as a weak economy recovers. History may not repeat itself but, as Mark Twain noted, sometimes it rhymes.

Read the most recent articles written by Joshua.Chambers - Interview: Alison Munro

Share this page