Michael Quinlan did more to shape the doctrine of deterrence than any other man in post-war Britain.  His passion was to reconcile Just War theory with the possession of nuclear weapons.  After he retired, he co-wrote, with Charles Guthrie, Just War: The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare. He became director of the Ditchley Institute, a visiting professor at King’s College London, and a senior consultant at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.  He also conducted a review of MI5 and MI6.  His job earlier?  He was a civil servant, becoming Permament Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, having served earlier there as Deputy Under-Secretary (Policy), during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the fashion in Labour swung towards unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Sir Michael is a useful introduction to the question – made so topical by current debate about the Customs Union – of whether civil servants have political views.  He is far from being an exception to the rule.  Charles Farr, formerly Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, had a take, when in post, on how government should deal with non-violent extremists.  It wasn’t always the same as that of Ministers, and he was over-ruled in one case, that of Zakir Naik, who he believed should be allowed to enter the country, under certain conditions.  The institutional view of the Foreign Office swung from being sceptical of the European project to enthusiastic about it.  If you want to know the details, read the account of no less pro-EU a figure than Hugo Young, the former Guardian political commentator.  The key personnel are listed in it.  He called his book, in a title with two meanings, This Blessed Plot.

That civil servants have an interest in policy is not at all a bad thing.  After all, they would not be able to give solid advice on how to implement it if they did not.  Neither can they be neutral, strictly speaking.  We all approach political decisions, or others, with preconceptions that are so much a guide to our thinking that we scarcely notice they’re even there – believing, for example, that state has a duty to the severely disabled, the destitute, and vulnerable children.  If anything, the policy capacity of individual departments is too weak: we need more civil servants like Michael Quinlan, not fewer.  Nor are they under an absolute obligation to do what Ministers tell them, any more than the rest of us are with our employers.  If a civil servant cannot reconcile his orders with his conscience, then he should resign, which is preferable to whistle-blowing unless the instance is scandalous.

But if civil servants are not bound to governments by a moral obligation, they are by a professional one.  If they’re not prepared to quit, they must get on, after putting their case, with doing whatever it is that Ministers ask them to do.  And while civil servants cannot be neutral, they must be impartial – prepared, for example, to implement the Government’s policy of leaving the Customs Union.  (We will explore tomorrow the tortuous difference between staying in the Customs Union, which the Prime Minister ruled out in her Lancaster House speech, and staying in a Customs Union, which she did not.)  In broad terms, much of the criticism of the civil service in this regard has been unfair.  There is no uniform view.  The Department for International Trade, for example, will favour leaving the Customs Union, if only because the Common Commercial Policy, an integral part of it, is incompatible with controlling our own trade policy.

The Treasury has a different take.  It is “determined to stay in the Customs Union,” as Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform put it.  (Those interested in the controversial business of what else he said at last year’s Conservative conference can hear it here.)  As Mark Wallace pointed out on this site last week, its latest push at trying to change the Prime Minister’s policy is straight out of the Project Fear playbook.  There is not much more to be said about it.  If the Treasury can’t forecast the coming year correctly – readers will remember its assertion that a vote for Brexit “would push our economy into a recession” – how on earth can it know what will happen in 15 years’ time?  “They came on in the same old way, and were driven off in the same old way,” said Wellington.  He was describing Waterloo, but his words also apply to the Treasury’s discredited studies, or should do.

However, the question about those forecasts isn’t, strictly speaking, whether the Treasury has an institutional view.  It is, rather, whether civil servants would have gone to work on them had they not been given an instruction to do so – or at least a nod of aquiescence.  Civil servants may strain in one direction rather than the other, and they may advise Ministers along those lines.  But it is unusual for them to take the initiative without the consent of politicians.  The most natural course to take in this instance is to apply Hammond’s Razor, which at least one senior Minister has already done in private, just as it is to ask who gained most from the leak.  We look set to find out this week whether May will stick to her Lancaster House policy, or carry out the manoeuvre that her only female predecessor so disliked – a U-turn.

Civil servants sometimes brief that attacks on those who can’t answer for themselves is unfair.  This defence is weakened by those senior ones who leave office and get down and dirty on social media.  There’s no intrinsic reason why Simon Fraser or Nick Macpherson, say, shouldn’t tweet away to their hearts’ content.  They should be as free to do so as everyone else.  But bits of what they send out won’t reinforce confidence in civil service neutrality.  None the less, old truths hold.  Margaret Thatcher said: “advisers advise but Ministers decide”.  She was right.  If you don’t like what the Treasury is up to, don’t blame its staff.  Get a new Chancellor.  If you don’t approve of the Foreign Office’s take on the EU, get new departments (as the Prime Minister has done).  If you don’t like what the Government is up to, don’t blame naked civil servants, who can’t speak for themselves.  Blame Ministers in emperors’ new clothes.