Boris Johnson is welcomed to Number 10 Downing Street by cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill. Dominic Cummings lurks in the right-hand corner

Politicians versus mandarins

Spats between governments and civil servants are inevitable when administrations have a radical agenda

Tim Congdon

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The twentieth century had too many examples of top civil servants giving bad advice that led to government blundering. Appeasement was perhaps the most serious of these, although the allocation of blame between politicians (Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax) and the key official (Sir Horace Wilson) will always be debated by historians. Later in life Wilson insisted that Chamberlain had been in charge, but at least one contemporary — Lord Woolton in his memoirs — said that Wilson had “tremendous power” and was crucial in ensuring that in the late 1930s appeasement was government policy.

Almost immediately after becoming prime minister in May 1940, Churchill decided that Wilson had to go. Wilson was permanent secretary to the Treasury and head of the home civil service, but he was so close to Chamberlain that his office was at 10 Downing Street. In the early morning of 11 May Randolph Churchill and Brendan Bracken took up station in this room. As he turned up for work, they gave Wilson his marching orders. They told him to clear his desk that morning. If he were ever seen in Downing Street again, the prime minister would appoint him governor of Greenland.

Top civil servants may camouflage their politics and trim to the latest think-tank nostrums, but everyone is political

By comparison, the defenestration of Sir Mark Sedwill at the end of June was a dignified affair. Sedwill — like Wilson 80 years earlier — had risen to the position of cabinet secretary and was routinely described as the country’s top civil servant. He had worked with Theresa May at the Home Office between 2013 and 2017, and been promoted when she became prime minister. It was widely known that he opposed Brexit. Indeed, in October 2018 — in a very unusual move for a civil servant — he had written a letter to The Times demanding that Tory backbench “sniping” against Olly Robbins (May’s chief adviser on the European Union) had to stop.

Sir Horace Wilson on his way to Munich

An earlier report in The Times had alleged that Robbins, said to have an “almost Rasputinesque hold” over May, was masterminding an establishment plot to thwart the will of the people who voted for Brexit. A fair surmise is that, if there were an establishment plot of this sort, Sedwill himself would have been part of it. Given the background, the surprise is perhaps that Sedwill survived for more than six months in Boris Johnson’s premiership. Although there is little doubt that he was in fact sacked, the formal process was that he wrote a letter saying that he wished to step down. Whereas Horace Wilson was despatched in a few minutes one morning, the Guardian reported that “weeks of tense negotiations” had preceded Sedwill’s removal.

The larger issue raised by the Wilson and Sedwill ejections is the definition of the proper role of the civil service in government. Strictly speaking, the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, in which the sovereign is served by two kinds of secretary of state.

One kind is political, temporary and sackable. To be precise, it consists of the cabinet ministers appointed on the basis that they belong to a party that has won a general election, with the prime minister recommending them to the monarch. Rather often, they reach their eminent positions by chance and whim.

The other is non-political and “permanent”, appointed on the very different basis that they have climbed by merit and hard work through a long civil service career. All being well, they are not to be removed by the government of the day.

But everyone is political. Top civil servants may camouflage their politics and trim to the latest think-tank nostrums, but they have beliefs and attitudes like other people. A particular problem is that finding the best solution to a policy issue may depend on — or be thought to depend — on having the right kind of expertise. Civil servants usually have deeper knowledge of major policy areas than their so-called “political masters”, as well as better access to leading outside experts. This apparent intellectual superiority may lead civil servants into thinking that they have the right technical answer to a particular challenge, when that answer is in fact both politically loaded and unsatisfactory in its own terms. Whitehall groupthink is then very dangerous.

Boris Johnson is not the first postwar prime minister to tussle with the mandarins

Economics and finance have for decades been areas of particular difficulty, very much the province of technical jargon and expert insight. In principle the Treasury is the dominant department in economic policy-making, even if the location of power has fluctuated between it on the one hand and 10 Downing Street and the Bank of England on the other. Its permanent secretary was in the past also head of the civil service, and perforce had a key role in making senior appointments and determining organisational structures. This may not be the current arrangement, but a period in the Treasury remains important to ambitious British bureaucrats if they are to gain the credentials to run a spending department.

Not surprisingly, new governments — whether of left or right — are reluctant to challenge top people in the civil service. The civil servants assemble the material in the red boxes, prepare white papers and other official documents, write ministerial speeches, and keep the myriad of public sector accounts. Left to themselves, the politicians could not hope to ensure that official statements respect grammar and syntax, and that numbers add up. Even prime ministers do not want to tangle with Treasury economic policymakers, if it can be avoided.

But spats between new governments and top civil servants are inevitable when the politicians have a radical agenda. Boris Johnson is not the first postwar prime minister to tussle with the mandarins. Governments from 1951 to 1979 shared a loose consensus on economic policy, captured in the word “Butskellism”. Both Labour and Conservatives favoured a “mixed economy” with a large nationalised sector and Keynesian demand management to promote full employment. (The “Butskellism” label combined the names of Hugh Gaitskell, the last chancellor of the exchequer in the 1945-51 Labour government and “Rab” Butler, the first chancellor in the 1951-64 Conservative governments.)

Might it be suggested that Robbins and Sedwill were doing their damnedest to keep Britain inside the EU despite the referendum result?

Butskellism continued until 1979, except that prices and incomes policy (to keep inflation down) was increasingly seen as a vital accompaniment of Keynesian fiscal policy (to maintain demand and output at the full employment level). Inescapably, economic policy in this period was a failure. The UK was at the bottom of the league tables of output growth, while sterling lost its key currency status and much of its international value. Inflation was consistently higher than in comparable countries, with the increase in the retail price index in August 1975 reaching the astonishing figure of 26.9 per cent.

Change was essential. But a striking feature of the official policymaking machine in the Butskellite era was its continuity. Lord Bridges (head of the home civil service and joint permanent secretary to the Treasury, 1945-56), Lord Armstrong (permanent secretary to the Treasury, 1962-68) and Lord Croham (permanent secretary to the Treasury, 1968-74) served successive Labour and Conservative governments without strain. (To remind, a new party of government took over in 1951, 1964 and 1970.) The politicians did not object to them, and — as far as the public record goes — they did not object to the politicians. Both ministers and officials were complicit in the economic policy mistakes of that period.

Monetarism was antithetical to Butskellism. Whereas the Butskellite consensus believed that inflation could be reduced only by direct state control over prices and wages, monetarism said that inflation could be checked by restricting the growth of the quantity of money. Given the risk that large budget deficits might be financed by borrowing from the banks, monetary restraint further implied that fiscal policy should not be used to manage demand.

But the successor to Lord Croham as Treasury permanent secretary, Sir Douglas Wass, was a Butskellite to the core. He appreciated by the mid-1970s that elite opinion was shifting, as both The Times (with William Rees-Mogg as editor, Peter Jay as economics editor and the author of this article on the economics staff) and the Financial Times (where Samuel Brittan was in his heyday as chief economics commentator) endorsed monetary control as the right antidote to inflation.

Sir Douglas Wass represented a policy approach antagonistic to Margaret Thatcher’s

But Wass was committed to Butskellism, including the practice of peak negotiations between government, industry and the trade unions to settle rates of pay increase. In a February 1978 speech to the Johnian Society (for members of St John’s College, Cambridge), he said that financial markets risked being misled by official statements which endorsed money growth targets. Connoisseurs of that period will not be surprised that the index to Wass’s memoir of the 1976 financial crisis, entitled Decline to Fall, contains four references to Jack Jones and one to monetarism.

Needless to say, the reference to monetarism is dismissive. (For young readers, Jack Jones was general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union in the 1970s, as well as probably the recipient of KGB money for passing internal Labour Party documents to Russian spies. According to Wikipedia, “In January 1977 a Gallup opinion poll found that 54 per cent of people believed that Jones was the most powerful person in Britain, ahead of the prime minister.” A Jack Jones House in Liverpool was originally built for the TGWU, but is now occupied by Unite.)

How could the new Thatcher government of 1979 — committed, as a central programme, to reducing inflation by monetary control — work with Sir Douglas Wass? Although the chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, and Wass got along somehow and even became quite chummy, Thatcher and Wass disliked each other. But he was not sacked. Instead Thatcher and her key cabinet colleagues made two key appointments in order to de-emphasise him and like-minded Treasury civil servants.

When regimes change, the prime minister must have the undisputed power to redeploy everyone at the top of government

They brought in Terry Burns from the London Business School as chief economic adviser and gave rapid promotion to Peter Middleton, who as Treasury press secretary from 1972 had come to know the crusading monetarist pundits and their thinking. After the 1983 general election Middleton became permanent secretary, a position he kept until 1991. Burns then followed and was permanent secretary until he fell out with New Labour’s Gordon Brown in 1998. Burns and Middleton have subsequently had careers of considerable distinction, with an unusual blend of work in the public and private sectors.

The early Thatcher years therefore did see a radical transformation in economic policy, from Butskellism to the monetarist counter-revolution, and an upheaval at the top of the civil service was a crucial element in it.

Wass retired in 1983, but retained an interest in government administration. In 2011 he gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on the role of the head of the civil service. It was beautifully written and judiciously expressed, as befits someone often seen as the inspiration for Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister. To quote, “I believe that au fond conduct is a matter best left to the service itself, with ministers of the day standing aside from the definition of what is right and what is not. The service is very jealous of its tradition of loyalty to the government of the day and of its political impartiality.”

At which point someone in the room must harrumph. It cannot be overlooked that Wass in the early 1980s, like Wilson in 1940, had long represented inside the official machine — in fact, at its very summit — a policy approach openly antagonistic to that of the government of the day. Like Sedwill recently, Wilson and Wass had to be removed. (At any rate, they had to be bypassed and neutralised.) The policy questions were so divisive and fundamental that the changes of prime minister — in 1940, in 1979 and 2019 — were effectively regime shifts. To cite “political impartiality” in such a context is merely silly.

Were Olly Robbins and Mark Sedwill involved in an establishment plot to thwart Brexit? In the best traditions of the universities (both of them) where top civil servants have usually been educated, the question no doubt turns on how “an establishment plot” is defined. Might it be suggested — indeed, might it be suggested au fond — that Robbins and Sedwill were doing their damnedest to keep Britain inside the European Union despite the referendum result?

Yes, the civil service must distance itself from party politics. All the same, there ought to be an understanding that — for good or ill — some issues are binary and regime-defining. When regimes change, the prime minister must have the undisputed power to redeploy everyone at the top of government, including the most senior civil servants.

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