The Banquo at the Hutton Inquiry Is Sir Andrew Turnbull, Cabinet Secretary. He Should Be Protecting the Independence of His Officials. but Is He Just Keeping His Head Down?

By Perkins, Anne | New Statesman (1996), September 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Banquo at the Hutton Inquiry Is Sir Andrew Turnbull, Cabinet Secretary. He Should Be Protecting the Independence of His Officials. but Is He Just Keeping His Head Down?


Perkins, Anne, New Statesman (1996)


Poor Tony Blair. If he were given to self-pity (safe to assume he isn't) he would surely feel he was reaping a poor reward for his efforts to style himself as a paradigm for the progressive politician. Each time he presents himself as open, accessible and interested only in doing as much good as he can through the antiquated and awkward institutions endowed to him by British political history, he seems to enhance his reputation for bullying and political chicanery. It hardly seems fair.

Press times force me to stick my neck out before I hear the Prime Minister's unprecedented testimony to Lord Hutton. But no one doubts that he believes what he says, and talks with the persuasive force of one who is convinced he is right. His problem is that the voters find it hard to hear what he says over the noise of what he has done.

There is a feeling abroad that the Blair project they once admired has changed; that, faced with an electorate which would much rather go, say, binge drinking than turn up to vote, Blair is increasingly behaving as if the country is best run without the distracting cacophony of democratic debate.

The Hutton inquiry, set up independently of parliament in order to carry more weight than the tainted foreign affairs select committee (tainted, that is, by its perceived lack of independence from the government), was confidently expected to provide total and, just as importantly, plausible vindication of Blair's honourable conduct in convincing the country of the need for war with Iraq. This confidence, we now know, was a reflection of that of the spymaster John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

It has hardly come as a surprise to discover that Downing Street manages its relations with journalists with obsessive jealousy. That, after all, is why there is an inquiry, one which might find that these relationships played a significant role in the death of David Kelly. The past three weeks of evidence have merely provided unedifying documentary proof of what was already widely known.

But below the daily headlines, we can now see what has happened over the past six years to the substructure of government. Hutton demonstrates, to anyone who cares to look, the impact of the political culture of Blairism on Whitehall and its senior officials: the erosion of the last vestiges of a civil service that sees itself as the custodian and guarantor of the conventions and protocols of good governance.

When Labour came to power there were, at first, expressions of surprised enthusiasm for the way those manning the great engine rooms of state adapted so smoothly, and anticipated so excellently the requirements of their new political masters. The initial enthusiasm degenerated into a low-key but morale-sapping attack on the average white male Oxbridge graduate's ignorance of cutting-edge communications technology, such as mobile phones. There were changes in personnel. Now, the uppermost echelons of Whitehall appear Blairite to a man and woman--not in the sense of being Labour-voting, which is quite irrelevant, but because they know what their political masters are looking for.

Any long period of single-party rule is likely to wear down the doctrine of political impartiality. Like anyone else, senior officials approaching the final five years or so of their careers calculate their chances of promotion. Hutton has revealed that successful civil servants are likely to be those who have absorbed the managerial culture of Blairism: such as Sir Kevin Tebbit, permanent undersecretary at the Ministry of Defence, who reacts to crisis by heading for the Prime Minister's study to discuss presentational implications with Alastair Campbell; or John Scarlett, who, far from having been asked to sex up his assessment of Iraq's military capabilities, had--it emerges--been warned to tone it down. …

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The Banquo at the Hutton Inquiry Is Sir Andrew Turnbull, Cabinet Secretary. He Should Be Protecting the Independence of His Officials. but Is He Just Keeping His Head Down?
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