3 August 2012

The Guardian’s response to the Cabinet Office Minister’s announcement on Wednesday of a competitive tender for advice on the advantages of politicising some aspects of the relationship between officials and their Ministers may well reflect the viewpoint of a Civil Service readership. 

It commented with surprise that the Minister should contemplate practices in France and the United States; that a Tory led coalition “…could float the idea that Britain should reverse 150 years of cherished tradition” as the leading practitioner of a public spirited, politically neutral, permanent service selected by competition, and appointed on merit.

“…A robust and independent civil service, willing to stand up to here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians and their sometimes thuggish bagmen, remains important. Yes, it’s wrong that officials hide problems, statistics and awkward facts from their political boss (Treasury officials are more frank with the chancellor than they are with No 10, but much more frank with each other), but it’s right that they try to keep naive or foolish ideas – most new governments have plenty – out of harm’s way…”

This portent of an attack on the constitutionally significant status of the Civil Service  happened on a day of constitution significance of which a Tory Minister could have been expected to be aware. The announcement – 1 August – was on the anniversary of the royal assent given in 1800 to the second Act of Union, the statutory framework for bringing Ireland into Union with Great Britain, which came into force on 1 January 1801 – when the Union Flag comprising the cross of St George and the saltire of Scotland had St Patrick’s cross interposed.

The Guardian also observed cynically that the Government is having a difficult time living up it to its propaganda.  It came to office with a manifesto for a “slimmed down Whitehall”. The Conservatives had criticised the Labour Government for the numbers and influence of political support staff.  In 2004 at its peak, there were 85 special advisers working in Ministers’ offices.  This was reduced to 66 by the coalition Government, but numbers are now back up to 85.

And then there are the “thuggish bagmen” on the periphery of public life but shown by the Leveson inquiry and other recent incidents to be at the centre of influence. Perhaps politicising the civil service will be just another sign of the times in Britain.