is little new in Whitehall, least of all Steve Hilton’s revelations to
Californian students about this Government’s difficulties with the civil
is odd that the problems he complained of were any surprise at all to a Government led largely by ex-special advisers, who you might think were
well-used to civil service shenanigans.
first ministerial post was in the Cabinet Office, the High Command of the “Yes,
Minister” tendency in Whitehall. So perhaps it should have been no surprise
when on my first day I opened my diary to find it full of junk – matters of
interest only to my mandarins and of little use to the aims of the government.
my first decision was easy – “Cancel it all”, I said as I handed the diary to my
slightly shocked private secretary. Thus started a slightly tumultuous year of
teaching the department that its job was to deliver the government’s agenda, not
its own. I was helped greatly by the support of my boss William Waldegrave and, to be fair, by some rather talented civil servants who liked to have a real
sense of political direction.
maintaining that direction was a permanent battle, as I discovered the day
after I moved on to my next ministerial posting a year later. I was succeeded
in the Cabinet Office by an old friend, and on his first day in office I rang
him up. “Tell me,” I said, “What is in your policy folder today?”
proceeded to read out a list of virtually every decision I had reversed,
cancelled or overruled in the previous year. He took great amusement in
upholding every decision I had taken, no doubt to the chagrin of the civil servants.
Mr Hilton’s trials and tribulations are not new. But they have got worse.
was, throughout the Blair years, a serious corrosion of the standards of the
Civil Service. It started with the now infamous Order in Council, allowing
political appointees, in the form of Alistair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, to
give orders to civil servants.
was exacerbated by the extension of payment by results and bonus systems
throughout Whitehall, a move quite properly resisted by one Cabinet Secretary
because it undermined the vital impartiality of our senior mandarins. Along
with a lot of other managerial mumbo jumbo, it eroded their famous independence
without improving their efficiency one jot.
were a number of more subtle changes that altered the balance of power between
ministers and mandarins. For example, there used to be a rule that you could
not become a Permanent Secretary unless you had first served in a ministerial
private office. This meant that ministers were well served, because competition
for jobs in their offices was fierce, and because the whole department treated
their Private Secretary very seriously. Now that rule appears to have gone, and
as a result both competence and clout has drained from ministerial offices.
the problem has got worse, to the point that the reality has overtaken the
“Yes, Minister” caricature. The comedy has become the training film.
is also exacerbated by the nature of the current government. Some of it is
caused by the inevitable fact that it is extremely inexperienced. The weaker
the minister, the stronger the civil service. The initial inexperience was
unavoidable, but it was unnecessarily worsened by the last reshuffle of the
middle ranks. The new appointments were generally fine, except that it was
associated with an extraordinary cull of some of the most competent Ministers
is also an undoubtedly careless air about the central management of this
virtually endless run of u-turns, typically after Downing Street has approved
something and then vacillated under fire from a hostile press, has done nothing
for the internal balance of power. The ridiculous belief – shared by both this
government and its Blairite predecessor – that government is essentially managerial,
about pulling the levers on some vast command and control system, also makes
the problem worse. And in that lies the answer.
governments that are most successful in making Whitehall work for them all
share one thing – a very clear sense of political direction. So, famously one
of the Cabinet Ministers in Atlee’s post-war government summoned his permanent
secretary on the first day in office, threw the Labour manifesto onto the
table, and said “That is the Department’s purpose and policy from now on, and
that is what I expect you to deliver!”
there was never any doubt under Margaret Thatcher that Number 10’s writ ran in
Whitehall. It did not matter whether it is left or right; so long as the
direction is clear, Whitehall can deliver. It is less good at following the
uncertain trumpet, which may be inevitable in a coalition.
I witnessed this first hand. I inherited a strongly Europhile department at the
Foreign Office, and I had to tell them in no uncertain terms that whilst I was
happy to listen to their arguments, ministers would make the decisions.
might reasonably have been expected to be difficult. In truth they were brilliant. On my last day
in office, I received a handwritten letter from our Ambassador to Europe. “You
shook us up when you arrived,” it read, “but you were right to do so.”
Steve Hilton had a partial point when he complained about Whitehall. But even
today it is still one of the most impartial, least corrupt government machines
in the world. Whether it is a Rolls Royce still, or now merely a Jaguar, I do
not know. But what Mr Hilton needs to remember is that either car will get you
to your destination, so long as the driver knows where he is going.