There's No Such Thing as `Apolitical' Civil Servants ; `My Problem Is That This Government Is Nowhere near Partisan Enough in Its Political Appointments'

Article excerpt

HOW MANY civil servants does it take to change a lightbulb?

One - but only after a full and comprehensive enquiry has been undertaken to establish whether or not the lightbulb should indeed be changed at some juncture.

Suddenly we have a government that has thought about what it wanted to do before it came into office and wants to implement its policies quickly and effectively. And shock, horror - most of the people they are bringing in to help implement the Labour manifesto are actually supporters of those policies! The cry goes up: "This is not democratic!" Now Lord Neill is promising to impose a tough new code of practice on these "special advisers".

So would it be more democratic to have the Labour policies that the country voted for being implemented by people who would rather they were not? Would it be more democratic if Labour's manifesto were obstructed and the status quo of the Major and Thatcher years maintained? The people who complain about the Aunt Sally of special advisers are in reality just resentful that the Government is getting its way. They want the Civil Service to be as neutral as it was when it when it was populated by old Etonians.

Any organisation that has spent 18 years implementing the policies of Margaret Thatcher and John Major is going to have a fairly strange idea of what is "neutral". When Vlad the Impaler's regime came to an end and the Wallachian civil service found themselves working for a new king, they were shocked at his radical proposals. "What, stop impaling people altogether?! Surely you mean gradually phase it out after hearing evidence from the Guild of Impalers."

There is, of course, no such thing as being "apolitical". The ministers for whom the Civil Service is working are interweaving "national interest" with party advantage at every turn, and it has always been so. For example, in the run up to the last general election, the Conservatives introduced a radical extension of police powers. The main purpose of that legislation was to split the Opposition and make Labour seem soft on crime. The civil servants who worked on that legislation were employed for party political ends.

The appointment of special advisers is an acknowledgement that there is obviously a party political dimension to a minister's work, and it helps cordon off that part of the job. But just to keep things in proportion, out of the hundreds, sometimes thousands of people working for each government department, the number of special advisers working for each minister is just two. …