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“No thinking, please, we’re British!”

Our politics needs more strategic intelligence

Artillery Row

On 31 January this year, the Cabinet Office, responsible for “supporting collective government and “helping to ensure the effective development, coordination and implementation of policy”, closed down a short-lived and relatively unknown piece of central government machinery. Colloquially known as the “Crown Consultancy”, the Government Consulting Hub, GCH, was officially launched on 20 May 2021. Lord Agnew, minister responsible for this initiative, declared in Parliament that continued spending on the “Big Four” consultancies — PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG — was “unacceptable” and that the government’s over-reliance on them had been a “waste of taxpayers’ money”. Media reports consequently focused on the GCH’s role in reducing the present administration’s rising expenditure on private sector management consultants, which in 2019 stood at £1.6bn but by 2022 had risen to a staggering £2.8bn.

Yet the GCH’s own avowed mission statement recorded that its true raison d’être was to provide a “new centre of expertise for management consultancy”, which would generate “a range of services to deliver assignments, generate and share knowledge, and build capacity across the Civil Service”. One of its major objectives, moreover, was to “provide impactful and evidenced strategic advice” to its governmental “clients”

The temporary secret servants imported a refreshing brand of intellectual independence

Championed by that bête noire of Whitehall officialdom, Dominic Cummings (special advisor to the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson), the GCH originally comprised sixty members of staff: a “team made up of a mix of talented and well-trained fast streamers, more grizzled veterans of policy and implementation programmes, external hires and people with in-demand specialist skills”, according to The Institute for Government, IfG. Whilst this think tank disputed the claim that “Crown Consultancy” could single-handedly “solve underlying civil service problems”, it did admit that the GCH could make a “welcome difference to the success of top government priorities”. The supply of cross-departmental strategic advice, as well as the training of Civil Servants, would mitigate one of Lord Agnew’s gravest suspicions about the government’s addiction to outside consultants — namely that it ultimately “infantilized” officials by stymieing in-house thinking.

Explanations as to why the GCH was axed just eighteen months after its inception remain vague. Whilst the government has refrained from supplying any granular detail as to the Unit’s shortcomings, “insiders’ claim that despite being, in theory, a “good idea”, in practice it simply “didn’t work”. This was largely due to the fact that government departments, rather than seeking internal advice, simply preferred to continue hiring external expertise. It is perhaps no coincidence that on the very day “Crown Consultancy” was abolished, the Treasury and Cabinet Office swiftly, but quietly, rescinded spending limits on outside consultants. 

By scrapping the GCH, the government has sent out a very powerful signal regarding who it wishes to do its strategic thinking. It is not the Civil Service. This propensity on the part of the executive, indeed of the British State in general, to spurn in-house thinking and instead out-source this activity to external actors, is a recurring theme in post-war British political history. Historically, this distrust of centralised thinking has compounded an existing weakness in the machinery of central government, namely that policy advice and strategic direction have traditionally been the preserves of individual Departments of State. In relation to the power of these departments, the Cabinet, the Prime Minister’s Office and the No. 10 Policy Unit (all of which are politicised) have been weak and geared to fulfil pretty narrow political functions. Medium to long-term strategic thinking on behalf of the nation is not where their strengths or indeed short-term interests lie. It is therefore unsurprising that since 1945 a “hole in the centre of government”, as the late Sir John Hunt (Secretary to the Cabinet between 1973 and 1979) once put it, has emerged. It is a gap in State capacity which “an overworked Cabinet seemed incapable of filling”. 

The creation of the GCH was not the first occasion on which a Conservative administration had attempted to fill this vacuum in central government. In 1971, the Central Policy Review Staff, CPRS, colloquially known as the “Think Tank”, was created by the then Prime Minister Edward Heath. An independent unit, housed within the Cabinet Office, the CPRS was a by-product of the 1970 white paper The Reorganization of Central Government which, inter alia, promised “better analysis of policy” and “greater clarity about objectives, priorities and strategy”. 

In the view of its unofficial history Inside the Think Tank, it was a strategic body tasked with horizon scanning so as to “give ministers the chance to think about problems before they became problems”. More precisely, it was charged with developing long-term strategy and co-ordinating policy across government departments for ministers and the PM. Never exceeding more than twenty staff members, the CPRS was a mixture of seconded “insiders” (civil servants) and appointed “outsiders”. They were divided roughly fifty-fifty, with the latter recruited from the worlds of business, academia, law and science. Notable alumni included Robin Butler, later Cabinet Secretary and now Lord Butler of Brockwell; William Waldegrave, baronet, future Conservative Cabinet Minister and Provost of Eton College; and Tessa Blackstone, one-time master of Birkbeck College, London, Labour minister under Tony Blair and now Baroness Blackstone. 

The quest to recruit the right type of person for such long-term, strategic work is another leitmotif in the history of central government. The Second World War witnessed a massive influx of outsiders into the Civil Service as it expanded to meet the challenges of total war. This was particularly the case with Britain’s intelligence and security services. The central intelligence machinery comprised the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and its assessments team, the Joint Intelligence Staff (JIS), which served Churchill, the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff. It received a galaxy of new talent. Lawyers, bankers, academics and stockbrokers were all absorbed into the “secret world”. 

As well as introducing their respective expertise and a diversity of thought into the intelligence process, the temporary secret servants also imported into Whitehall a refreshing brand of intellectual independence, moral courage and scepticism. Empowered by their temporary status, these “independently-minded civilians whose wartime uniforms were only skin-deep”, could fearlessly turn round to their superiors and say, “Either trust me, or get rid of me and get someone you can trust”. The first director of the “Think Tank” (1971–1974) had been invited to join the wartime ranks of the Security Service MI5. Nathaniel Mayer (Victor) Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild, was perhaps seeking the same type of robust, forthright personality to man the CPRS. Inside the Think Tank certainly gives that impression. 

As this authoritative study recounts, Rothschild took an exceeding amount of care to personally interview each potential recruit in order to satisfy himself that he was hiring the right kind of mind for the job. Although the temperaments of CPRS staff varied, they were all nonetheless safe pairs of hands. Thanks to Rothschild, mavericks, prima donnas and loose-cannons within the “Think Tank” were conspicuous by their absence. This was all in sharp contrast, however, to the efforts of Dominic Cummings in early 2020. 

In the early 1970s, a watered-down form of Cummings’ heterodoxy was actually encouraged

Cummings is a self-styled maverick and avowed non-team player. In a very admirable attempt to shift the paradigm and re-introduce “genuine cognitive diversity” back into central government, he publicly announced in a 3,000 word job advert his mission to hire “super-talented weirdos” and “misfits with odd skills” to supercharge Whitehall thinking. Yet Cummings’ initiative soon succumbed to bureaucratic antibodies. The government’s autoimmune system quickly reacted against his particular heterodox approach, as well as to toxic press coverage concerning the alleged beliefs of some of his hand-picked recruits. Ultimately, Cummings’ love of Westminster-Whitehall psycho-dramas, his periodic lapses of judgement and his general antipathy towards the status quo ensured his downfall — and with it the slow demise of his alternative think tank.

Back in the early 1970s, a watered-down form of this heterodoxy was actually encouraged by figures such as Lord Rothschild. Consequently, the self-appointed mission of the CPRS and its staff was, to borrow Herman Kahn’s infamous phrase, “thinking the unthinkable”. Perhaps their greatest distinction, echoing that of their wartime forebears, was the diversity of thought they brought to their complex and challenging work. The Civil Service of the 1970s and early 1980s lacked, in the opinion of Tessa Blackstone, “ … imagination, creativity, enterprise, interest in change, flexibility and adaptability”, as well as “knowledge and expertise in particular subjects”. To compound matters, Whitehall’s mandarins eschewed joined-up thinking, favoured conventional wisdom and consensus, and were highly susceptible to “groupthink”. This term is defined today as “A psychological process that refers to the internal social pressures that can lead a closely knit (and generally high functioning group) to commit errors of judgement”. 

As an independent body, the CPRS was ideally placed to detect these psychological pitfalls and therefore challenge the resultant fallacies being fed into high-level decision-making. Able to rise above the political and inter-departmental fray, it could stand back and objectively analyse issues placed in its in-tray. A judicious application of common sense to its work distinguished it from other denizens of the Whitehall jungle, as did a determination to differentiate strategy from policy. This was articulated in an early paper in which the CPRS affirmed that in order to govern effectively, governments needed a “clear and comprehensive definition of strategy”. Otherwise they were “at some risk of losing sight of the need to consider the totality of their current policies in relation to their longer-term objectives”.

In John le Carre’s classic novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the unmasked Soviet mole Bill Haydon avers, “I still believe that the secret services are the only real expression of a nation’s character”. The same could also be said of Britain’s Civil Service. The conspicuous absence of medium to long-term strategic cognition, on the part of UK bureaucrats, is perhaps symptomatic of something deep in the national psyche that distrusts and therefore eschews thinking. 

Historically and culturally the British, and in particular the English, have been decidedly anti-intellectual. As Jeremy Paxman relates in his best-selling book The English: Portrait of a People, “ … if you are going to be an intellectual in England, you had better do it discreetly, and certainly not call yourself an intellectual”. Moreover, “The English approach to ideas,” in Paxman’s opinion, “is not to kill them, but to let them die of neglect. The characteristic English approach to a problem is not to reach for an ideology but to snuffle around it, like a truffle hound, and when they have isolated the core, then to seek a solution. It is an approach which is empirical and reconciling and the only ideology it believes in is Common Sense.”

The British mind also favours pragmatism over reason. This has led to a national propensity to “muddle through”. As Professor Lord Peter Hennessy, the doyen of British constitutional historians, has observed, complacency, ad hoccery and last-minute improvisation characterise the way that the British transact the nation’s business. The inclination to kick big problems down the road or into the long grass, in the vain hope that time and divine intervention will somehow solve them, is also highly-symptomatic of this “mudding through” mentality. 

Denis Healey, the Labour politician, one-time Secretary of Defence and Chancellor of the Exchequer in successive Wilson governments, went further still. In his autobiography, Healey reflected that by the 1960s senior civil servants had largely given up thinking as to the nature and trajectory of the UK’s geo-political future. He attributed this cerebral malaise to Britain’s belated desire to join the European common market. “I was … very unfavourably impressed by the volte-face of my friends in the British civil service, he wrote. “[T]heir sudden conversion in the late fifties,” he ventured, “reflected a collapse of confidence in their own ability to solve Britain’s problems, rather than an intellectual conviction that the Common Market would help us.”

To compound matters, the British, despite their avowed reverence for history, are essentially “presentist” in nature. They are therefore unable to see anything save through the lens of the present moment. Psychologically impaired by what one Cambridge historian has termed “Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder”, HASDD, the British subsequently suffer from poor corporate memory. The off-shoots are a lack of continuity of thought and knowledge fade. Unsurprisingly, all are barriers to effective decision-making, and they have conceptually handicapped the British State for decades.

Rothschild and the CPRS were way ahead of their own times

A further predilection that has burrowed deep into the British cultural psyche is that of admiring and championing the “talented amateur” over the “consummate professional”. As the Spanish-born philosopher, poet and essayist George Santayana reflected, “English genius is anti-professional; its affinities are with amateurs.” This national trait was also alighted upon by the late Sir John Harvey-Jones, a former naval intelligence officer, businessman, chairman of ICI, management consultant, business guru, author and television pundit. Sir John was moved to lament, “There appears to be a deeply rooted antipathy to training in the UK … It is possible that this stems from historical attitudes. We have always admired the effortless amateur who can ‘beat the professional at his own game’ and we have always been somewhat contemptuous of intellectuals and academics.” It is perhaps no wonder, then, that management consultants have flourished in the UK.

Ironically, for an analytical body striving to inject professional thinking into a cerebrally atrophied polity, the CPRS’s first head Victor Rothschild was the quintessence of the “talented amateur”. Scion of the famous banking dynasty, a highly-decorated MI5 bomb disposal officer, first-class cricketer, zoologist, Cambridge fellow and Shell executive, the 3rd Baron Rothschild was something of a renaissance man. In the opinion of the Think Tank’s unofficial history, he was an ideal leader, for he was “independent, iconoclastic, and fearless”. Whilst he could also be “confrontational and conspiratorial”, as well as “impulsive, quirky and touchy”, Rothschild was gifted with an original mind that continually inquired into the art and science of thought.

In October 1973, Rothschild delivered a lecture at Newcastle University entitled “Thinking”. He asked four basic questions: “What is thinking? How is it best done? … How is it best developed and how can it be improved and made more effective?” Before dazzling his audience with his own mental dexterity and corkscrew-like logic, Rothschild admitted however that “Thinking about thinking is not easy”, adding, “I would go further and confess that it is extremely hard work. Lord Rothschild was nevertheless curious as to the extent to which thinking affected decision-making, and more specifically how it influenced the transacting of the “Nation’s business” — i.e., government. Unsurprisingly, the need for strategic thinking at the national level ran through his two volumes of memoirs, Meditations of a Broomstick and Random Variables, like a golden thread. 

In many ways, Rothschild and the CPRS were way ahead of their own times. During the early 1970s, they sought to address issues as diverse as inflation, nuclear reactors, race relations, demographics and energy conservation. A taste of his far-sightedness was offered in a lecture he delivered in 1974. Addressing the issue of energy policy, specifically the role of nuclear power, Rothschild averred, “ … a decision taken now, that is in the short-term, may have very long-term consequences, up to the end of the century for example. The inordinately delayed decision on nuclear reactors … came into the category of a subject requiring urgent decision: but with effects that will still be felt in the year 2000. 

The UK’s current energy crisis, and the concomitant debate over the viability of nuclear energy, bear testimony to Rothschild’s perspicacity and strategic vision. In a very public resignation letter to the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, entitled “Farewell to the think tank and published in The Times on 13 October 1974, Rothschild identified the country’s “most formidable enemies” as “inflation and social division”. The UK has once again fallen victim to these twin tyrannies, more than justifying Rothschild’s original concerns. 

Following Lord Rothschild’s departure as head of the CPRS, Whitehall’s “Think Tank” was led by a further three directors: Sir Kenneth Berrill (1974–1980), Sir Robin Ibbs (1980–1982) and John Sparrow (1982–1983). Despite the imprimatur of three successive premiers, Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, its unofficial history recounts that by the end of Mrs Thatcher’s first administration, the corporate identity of the CPRS had become much watered-down — and with it, much of its credibility. Like the recent abolition of the “Crown Consultancy”, the disbandment of the CPRS on 16 June 1983 met little comment from practitioners and “Whitehall watchers” alike. 

Yet in the years following, seasoned Whitehall-Westminster operators came to lament its loss. In his autobiography, The Course of My Life, Edward Heath wrote that he considered his “Think Tank” to have been a valuable government asset, and “one of the best innovations of my years at No. 10”. The wily Labour Cabinet minister (and one-time Prime Minister) James Callaghan reflected that it had been an “invaluable way of reaching the right conclusionsTo my regret, and I believe to her loss, the unit was disbanded by Mrs Thatcher”. Meanwhile Sir Frank Cooper, former Permanent Under-Secretary at the MoD, and Sir Robert Armstrong, Cabinet Secretary from 1979 to 1989, both “deeply regret[ted]” the “passing of the CPRS”.

Should thinking not now be categorised as a national strategic asset?

Numerous reasons for its demise have been posited, not all of them convincing. Ultimately, the CPRS succumbed to a lethal cocktail of departmental resentment, political indifference and, critically, an absence of Prime Ministerial patronage. Quite simply, the Think Tank’s long-term, strategic approach clashed with the Iron Lady’s own philosophy: “if short-term decisions are made correctly, the long-term will tend to look after itself”. Her official biographer, Charles Moore, goes further. He cites Mrs Thatcher’s desire for a policy unit that worked directly for her and not the Cabinet Office; her perception that the CPRS was “incapable of working fast to a political agenda”; and the dimming of her initial “resistance” to employing special advisers as the main reasons behind her dissolution of the Think Tank. The supersession of the CPRS by a politicised No. 10 Policy Unit, to which a number of its functions were syphoned off, certainly supports these claims. 

Mrs Thatcher’s growing love-affair with management consultants is evidenced by the figures. In 1979, when she came to power, the State spent a mere £6m a year on consultants. Yet by 1990, when she was forced from office by a mutinous Cabinet, government spending on external advisors stood at an eye-watering £246m. Forty years on, the UK is now experiencing the toxic and dysfunctional fallout from this predisposition towards hiring outside “trouble-shooters”. As a consequence, there is mounting public debate as to the advisability of public sector reliance upon consultants, particularly in light of the Civil Service’s poor delivery track record.

This ongoing conversation has been crystallised in a newly published and timely critique, The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens our Businesses, Infantilizes our Governments and Warps our Economics. Its co-authors are particularly vexed by the parasitic effect that management consultants have on the State’s bureaucratic apparatus. Echoing Lord Agnew’s concerns, they explain that the advice proffered by these “masters of the universe” gradually increases the State’s dependence on their services. Simultaneously, it “infantilizes” the central machinery of government by inducing knowledge and skills fade in State officials. This in turn stymies and undermines in-house learning and “institutional memory” within Whitehall. It is another moot point that the favoured “Big Four” also acquire valuable insider information and skill-sets whilst working for their State host. 

In the 21st century, essential utilities such as water, gas, electricity and steel production, once owned and run by the State, are being belatedly classed as “strategic assets” — despite many being the current property of foreign companies. Should thinking itself not now be categorised as a national strategic asset? In 1985, the former Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously likened Mrs Thatcher’s privatisation programme to “selling off the family silver”. He too feared Britain was divesting itself of its vital resources for short-term, narrow political and financial gains. Thatcher’s scrapping of the CPRS, her championing of a politicised No. 10 Policy Unit, and her enthusiastic adoption of private sector advice can all be viewed, therefore, as forms of intellectual privatisation. As The Big Con warns, “In-house knowledge and resources are … not merely a means for achieving current political objectives; they can also be the building blocks of knowledge and resources for use in the future.” 

Now faced with the second, third or perhaps fourth order consequences of BREXIT, COVID-19, climate change and a second Cold War with Russia and China, surely it is time for the UK to resurrect an in-house consultancy (or “Think Tank”) such as the GCH or CPRS. Such an operation can fill the historical “hole in the centre of government”, monitor and analyse how the nation’s business is transacted, and ultimately settle the pressing question: who do we want to undertake our national strategic thinking? As the parallels and similarities between the demise of the Government Consulting Hub, and the dissolution forty years ago of the Central Policy Review Staff, escaped the notice of contemporary “Whitehall watchers”, perhaps it is now incumbent upon the authors of The Big Con to sound the clarion call for greater strategic acumen at the heart of government.

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