Sue Cameron: Whitehall needs a new deal

The civil service has taken a battering – but could Sir Humphrey’s time be about to come again?


By Sue Cameron

30 Mar 2015

It is now 35 years since that iconic Whitehall figure, Sir Humphrey Appleby, made his debut on our TV screens along with Jim Hacker, his supposed political master. Spicing up the mix was Bernard Woolley, the minister’s private secretary, ever ready with waspish observations about how the job of civil servants was to ensure that a minister nailed his trousers to the mast – so he couldn’t climb down. With some of the funniest episodes based on real events, Yes, Minister opened up the inner workings of government to the public gaze for the very first time.

Its authors, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, say that few in the 1980 audience would have known that a top official called a permanent secretary even existed. Back then, civil servants operated strictly behind the scenes in a world the public was not supposed to know about. Sir Humphrey’s maxim was that open government was a contradiction in terms: you could be open or you could have government.

By lifting the veil on Whitehall, Yes, Minister started undermining the civil service model created over 100 years earlier by the great reformers Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan. Whatever the result of the election this May, one crucial question will be how to forge a new settlement between civil servants, politicians, parliament and the people. The trick will be how to do it without losing what was best in Whitehall’s Victorian legacy.

One reason why the old order started to crumble was the glare of the public spotlight, not just from satirical TV but the rise of 24-hour media, the demands for greater transparency and, of course, the Freedom of Information Act, said by Tony Blair to be was one of his greatest mistakes.

Then came Labour’s Margaret Hodge, feisty chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, who proudly admits that grandstanding is one of her weapons. She has named and blamed some of Whitehall’s finest for everything from tax evasion to multi-billion pound cock-ups in the management of public projects. She has single-handedly – and, it must be said, quite rightly – put a stop to the old wheeze whereby civil servants said they’d only been carrying out ministers’ orders, while ministers insisted officials had kept them in the dark.

MPs on the PAC may have been unfair – and unforgivably rude – to some officials but they have ensured that accountability is firmly on the agenda, for civil servants as well as ministers.

Then there’s the competition. Sir Humphrey had little difficulty in sidelining Frank Weisel, Hacker’s solitary spad. Today, a plethora of spads and think tanks provide a shadow civil service who sometimes usurp the role of Whitehall officials, and who certainly stand ready to take over from them. Meanwhile, Tory and Labour politicians are demanding more say in permanent secretary appointments, claiming it would help get things done. Others see this as covert cronyism, particularly as many ministers have never run anything in their lives.

Finally, we have had the unedifying spectacle of some ministers and their hangers-on publicly rubbishing the civil service, including named officials. Not that it does the politicians much good in the eyes of the voters. Tellingly, an Ipsos Mori poll published in January found that only 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth, while trust in civil servants is 55%, up from 23% in 1983.

With some form of multi-party government likely after the election, along with pork barrel deals between politicians as they struggle to push through legislation in the Commons, a strong civil service is more important than ever. On the plus side, the civil service is leaner, more focused and more professional than five years ago. Yet it has been also destabilised to the point a new deal is now required.

Among the questions that need urgent answers is where the lines should be drawn between ministers and civil servants when it comes to public accountability. How much tougher should Whitehall’s leaders be in slapping down those who publicly attack officials, knowing they cannot hit back? Is it time to have a high profile insider whose job it is to speak out on behalf of the civil service? How can the public service ethic be revitalised? What should be the relationship between the departments and the centre? Even under single party rule, a government is not so much a team as a loose confederation of warring tribes – as Sir Humphrey shrewdly noted. It is an observation that will be even more pertinent if we have a minority government after the election.

If history is anything to go by, such an outcome could provide the ideal environment for the civil service to regroup and reassert itself. The last time we had a minority government was in the 1970s. Although it wasn’t aired until 1980, it was in the 1970s that Yes, Minister was devised, and Sir Humphrey’s influence was at its zenith.

Read the most recent articles written by Sue Cameron - Book review: Where power lies behind the black door of No.10


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