QUENTIN LETTS: Unelected. Arrogant. The damning report that reveals our mandarins really DO believe they run Britain
Every five years we have a general election to choose our government: correct? We can boot out the nincompoops who have made a mess of things and vote in a new crowd who may have dramatic solutions: correct?
Wrong on both counts. A leaked document from the snooty end of Whitehall has exposed how little influence voters’ wishes have on the way our country is run.
Those general elections might as well be decided by lucky dip. The people really in charge — and don’t they know it — are the Permanent Secretaries of the various departments of government, ie, the top civil servants who continue in their jobs whatever the grubby electorate wants.
In the language of Yes Minister, these unchanging civil service bosses are the Sir Humphreys (and nowadays a few Dame Harriets).
A leaked Whitehall document has revealed how civil servants survive democratically elected changes
Thanks to a leaked internal document setting out the criteria for choosing Permanent Secretaries, which would almost be comical were it not so chilling, we now know the extent of their scheming to stop politicians getting their way.
The document, blandly entitled Indicators Of Potential For Permanent Secretary Roles, was printed under an official Whitehall crest alongside the logo of consultancy firm YSC (motto ‘Releasing the Power of People’). You may be interested to know that one of YSC’s managing consultants is Peter Mandelson’s spin doctor Derek Draper, though, oddly, his infamous time with New Labour is not listed on the YSC website.
The six-page paper contained jargon such as ‘managing people drivers’ and ‘real world delivery’. There were Machiavellian (or Mandelsonian) subtitles such as ‘political mastery’ and ‘assert personal authority’.
The tone was one of lofty self-satisfaction, Brahmin disregard for the British electorate. It was penned in a key of elitist subterfuge.
The document was, in short, a sneaky, anti-democratic blueprint for a cadre of remote, powerbase-building, status quo-cementing Civil Service grandees. It praised their ability to bypass, baffle, block and occasionally appease the ministers they are supposed to serve.
The document recommended that Whitehall careerists should use their guile and professional job security to ensure that they, and not their political bosses, leave a personal ‘legacy’ in their departments.
These top civil servants should be ‘number one’ and excel in ‘high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty’, while coping with ‘irrational political demands’, said the memo.
Maude said the leaked document did not conform with ‘constitutional propriety’
No wonder Francis Maude MP exploded with anger when shown the document.
Mr Maude is the minister supposedly in charge of the Civil Service. Yet the mandarins, currently led by the egregious Sir Jeremy Heywood, plainly think they can outwit the Maudes of this world.
Mr Maude said the document did not ‘conform with constitutional propriety’, and immediately issued copies to Cabinet colleagues so they could comprehend what they were up against.
Former Home Office Minister Nick Herbert, whose attempts to rein in the Police Federation were often queried by doubtful civil servants, called the document ‘beyond parody’.
Indeed. It is an all-too-accurate admission of what has been going on at the top of Whitehall. Perhaps the only surprise is that its anonymous author was so clumsy as not to keep it hushed-up, which is the normal trick.
Politicians have long complained of mandarin obstruction.
Richard Crossman, a Labour minister under Harold Wilson, wrote in his diary of the ‘tremendous effort’ required of a minister to fight off the Civil Service. At first, he felt as if he had been placed ‘in a padded cell’. Later, he was ‘like somebody floating on the most comfortable support’. He must finally have been doing what they wanted.
Tony Benn, a 1970s Cabinet minister with radical leanings, was mistrustful of the Civil Service and had a rough time partly as a result.
Sir Humphrey hates radicalism. It involves so much work!
Margaret Thatcher also came to regard the Civil Service with strong suspicion. She remarked that Yes Minister was not so much a TV drama series as a documentary, and was savaged by the political establishment for expecting members of her team to be ‘one of us’.
That dogmatic phrase was considered somehow un-British, yet Mrs T saw that unless you had soulmates alongside you pushing through radical change, it would be blocked by The System. Despite her strength of character she was indeed frustrated, mainly by the Foreign Office when it came to European policy.
Jack Straw, on becoming Home Secretary after the Blair landslide in 1997, was struck by the ceremonial deference shown him by civil servants. They all stood up when he entered a room. That outward respect was not matched by executive ability. Straw was soon complaining that the Civil Service was ‘not so much a Rolls-Royce as a Robin Reliant’.
Both he and his successor, David Blunkett, had terrible battles to get the Home Office to jump to political will, and a later Home Secretary lashed out at the Department as ‘not fit for purpose’.
Blunkett had particular difficulties with his Permanent Secretary, John Gieve. Did it harm Gieve’s career? Hardly. He went on to become a deputy governor of the Bank of England and was given a knighthood.
Tony Blair complained that civil servants ‘reckoned in increments when the system required leaps and bounds’. He was perhaps describing the natural inertia of any vast organisation.
Our history is littered with ministers complaining of civil servants – Tony Blair described his frustration with the slow speed of change at political organisations run by civil servants
The difference with the Civil Service is that it exists supposedly to process the electorate’s desires. If it obstructs them, is it not a threat to democracy?
One of Blair’s junior ministers, Chris Mullin, wrote in his diaries of how a fellow minister once opened a cupboard at the chaotic immigration department of the Home Office to find it full of unanswered mail, having just been assured there were no more outstanding letters.
An official summoned for a carpeting explained: ‘We put them there so that the Minister wouldn’t see them.’
The Civil Service is supposed to adhere to fine principles outlined in the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853, which laid down the idea of impartial permanent administrators working under ephemeral political control.
The model worked when politicians were confident personalities prepared to withstand short-term criticism. But in the past 20 years, opinion polling has become more instant and MPs are less stoical about their ratings.
They quail at the thought of being held personally accountable for difficult policies, so they have farmed out decisions, sometimes to arm’s-length quangos, sometimes to private contractors.
The civil servants, like any middle men, have acquired greater power.
Thanks to the leaked document, it has become undeniable that modern mandarins cynically employ double-speak and misinformation to obscure their role.
We see how they have developed improper political ambitions of their own. They now envisage themselves not as civil servants but as entities with a sense of personal ‘mission’.
When Sir Jeremy appears before parliamentary committees, he gives off an impression of disdain
And in Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, they have their terrible exemplar.
When Sir Jeremy appears before parliamentary committees, as he did only this Monday, he leaves an impression of brazen indifference to democracy.
He gives performances of icy-veined, snippety-lipped, patronising disdain, his bespectacled eyes casting to one side in apparent boredom while the elected dullards ask their questions.
He does not come across as an upholder of dispassionate values. He strikes one more as a management consultant on the make, tapping the table with his fingernails, impatient to get on with his superior existence away from these sub-standard clunkers.
It is uncontroversial to say that the electorate would like the Iraq inquiry to publish its long-delayed report. Who is currently blocking that report? Sir J. Heywood.
David Cameron’s former aide Steve Hilton was one of the few people in Downing Street to voice open criticism of the Civil Service. He was duly shafted — it is said by Sir Jeremy.
Sir Jeremy also, against the wishes of top ministers, insisted the Leveson Inquiry into the Press be given judicial status.
The West Coast mainline rail fiasco can be traced to his door, too. True to the leaked document, the mandarin class filled the air with ambiguity and Sir Jeremy ‘kept going when faced with public criticism’.
He did not resign. These characters never do. They remain disgracefully unaccountable and are invariably rewarded with very handsome pensions and knighthoods.
Never has the power of mandarins been greater than during this Coalition Government.
Civil servants, acting as emissaries between warring Tories and Lib Dems, have filled the vacuum created by the ministerial compromises necessitated by the hung Parliament.
Since the 2010 election, Whitehall’s permanent Pooh-Bahs have pulled every trick to slow down the spending cuts which are so essential to our economic future.
Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has been briefed against viciously for attempting to reduce the welfare monolith. Indeed, it was widely reported that Sir Jeremy manoeuvred to have him sacked. Education Secretary Michael Gove, another inspiring radical, has faced similar Civil Service dissent. A less determined minister would have crumbled.
Now that we have such palpable evidence of the mandarins’ conspiracy to obstruct, why should we ever again take seriously these anti-democratic pen pushers?