Turn Whitehall Upside Down

By Hunt, Tristram | New Statesman (1996), June 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

Turn Whitehall Upside Down


Hunt, Tristram, New Statesman (1996)


Within days of the election result, Tony Blair could have made the most crucial decisions of the second term, writes Tristram Hunt

The days following an election provide a decisive opportunity to reshape Whitehall. In May 1997, Tony Blair appeased John Prescott by creating the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), allowed the Bank of England to assume operational independence, and established the Department for International Development. This time, he intends to go further.

Despite embarking on the greatest programme of constitutional change since Lloyd George, the government has shied away from "modernising" Whitehall. Devolution left little energy to face down the departmental anachronisms. And, at first, Labourseemed in awe of the Rolls-Royce machine that had managed the transition to power so effectively. That reverence has faded, as MPs facing re-election worry about the slow implementation of policy. Whitehall reform is needed both to deliver Labour's agenda more efficiently and to send out a wider message about the left's belief in the state. This is not simply navel-gazing in the Westminster village. New departments with new mandates and different cultures can often secure political objectives more effectively.

Blair could begin on his own doorstep, with a revamp of the Cabinet Office. Crippled by a lack of power and information, No 10 enjoys negligible control over the long-established departments. An enhanced Cabinet Office, under the leadership of an up-and-coming minister (a Patricia Hewitt or Charles Clarke), could ensure that departments focus on Labour's manifesto commitments, rather than the pet schemes of permanent secretaries.

Beefing up the centre of government would entail an attack on the Treasury, which now lords it over Whitehall as never before; the abdication of monetary policy to the Bank of England has only increased its ferocious auditing of other departments. It is time to reduce its cross-cutting role and to scale it down to a ministry of finance. Yet, as one Blairite acidly noted, the only way to reduce the reach of the Treasury is to put the Chancellor in No 10. Then there is the Lord Chancellor. Before the last election, civil servants at the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) were given to understand that Labour would create a ministry of justice. …

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