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Big Govt

Today’s Times (£) carries the latest attack by Sir David Normington, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, on the Government over patronage.

Sir David has accused John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, of trying to shoehorn a Conservative supporter into a “prominent position” at the National Portrait Gallery. This, the Commissioner informs us, is not on.

This is not the first time Sir David has taken the Government to task over appointments, and only ten days ago Charles Moore set out in the Telegraph why he should be opposed.

In short: that taking the power of patronage out of the hands of elected politicians simply vests it with unelected civil servants, which in turn produces recruitment biases just as powerful as officially partisan recruitment.

This should be obvious to anybody who takes a few seconds to think about it. We’re not handing the power to angels, or philosopher princes, or perfectly-programmed computers, after all, but to people steeped in the very particular culture of the Civil Service.

Here at ConservativeHome, we’re firm believers in political appointees. Getting a grip on the appointments system was point five on our post-election ‘Securing the Majority’ series, and we run a fortnightly column which explicitly aims to encourage Conservative supporters to apply for public appointments (latest out just this morning!).

Believe it or not (and many will not), this is not just about the fact that Conservative sympathisers find it very difficult to cut through an appointments system dominated by the public sector ethos of Sir David et al. There is also a very strong democratic case for a return to “the days of political and personal patronage” so abhorred by the Commissioner.

As the size and scope of the state increases – as it inexorably seems to – it becomes harder to subject to comprehensive democratic scrutiny and control. This is not a modern concern, nor a Tory one: you can trace the argument back through Yes Minister in the 1980s to the published diaries of Richard Crossman, the 1960s Labour minister, which inspired the show.

The result is that more and more parts of the government, or at least the state, simply tick along regardless of which party is in office. MPs, already pressed for time and sadly insistent on further trimming their working week to be “family friendly”, can’t hope to oversee it all.

Even if the people filling these roles were paragons of disinterested efficiency, it would be a troubling development in democratic terms.

But public appointees are people, with political biases and beliefs, who are often not averse to drawing on the authority of their ‘independent’ position to enter the public arena whilst shielding themselves from criticism – see the furore over the decision not to re-appoint Sally Morgan, a Labour peeress, as head of Ofsted.

There are going to be biases in any system of public appointments. But it seems far easier to justify the biases of an elected government, with a mandate from the electorate, than the biases of Sir David and the civil service, which have no mandate at all, or those of the previous Government, which the voters have rejected.

It simply does not make democratic sense to leave so many creatures of the ancien régime in place to thwart your programme.

Making appointments explicitly political also makes the system more transparent: the political credentials and beliefs of public officials will be out in the open, and the public will not have their standard desire for sceptical scrutiny misdirected or disabled by the word “independent”.

If the Government is guilty of anything, it is of not being ambitious enough in its drive to dismantle Labour’s ‘deep state’ – built up over 13 years in office – and replace it with one which can help this administration to deliver its own agenda.

At the very least, Whittingdale ought to publicly rebuke Sir David and remind him – as Paul Goodman reminded us in our ‘Securing the Majority’ series – that public appointments are ultimately ministerial patronage whether he likes it or not.

Then the Government should move towards a system whereby politically important positions are made explicitly political appointments, and establish either a convention or a rule that these roles will be vacated when a new Government takes office.

Yes, it’s patronage. But politics and government is the right place for it. The technocratic approach is a fallacy because in government, unlike in a corporation or charity, there isn’t long-term uniformity of vision which allows you to make appointments solely on the basis of qualifications and experience.

An applicant’s politics matter and must be considered – and when there is a change of government, reconsidered.

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