Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair Has Undermined the Civil Service to Make It Easier to Lie

Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair Has Undermined the Civil Service to Make It Easier to Lie

Article excerpt

The Blair governent has been timorous on most matters. On public services, welfare reform or the euro it has been hesitant, and at times has given the appearance of being afraid of its own shadow. Even on constitutional change it has veered towards caution - witness the confusion about the shape of the new House of Lords.

But there is one important area where New Labour has been audacious. It has systematically recast the relationship between political party and state. Until Tony Blair came to power all mainstream parties accepted that the civil service was independent and owed its ultimate allegiance only to the Crown - a doctrine which dates back to William Ewart Gladstone's reforms in the 1870s.

New Labour simply refused to accept the Gladstonian settlement. It adopted instead a variant of the Marxist attitude that independent state institutions can never be more than a fiction, and that in practice they are a polite way of concealing the interest of the ruling class. The first thing that New Labour did on winning power was to convert the state machine into a political instrument.

There have been all kinds of manifestations of this constitutionally revolutionary idea: New Labour's enduring hostility to the monarchy; Downing Street's tendency to refer to 'our' armed forces; Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's curious habit of referring to Tony Blair as `head of state'. The government has just published a document setting out the structure of power within No. 10 which shows how complete the takeover now is. It demonstrates that, leaving aside the Prime Minister, Downing Street is run by three grandees to whom civil servants and others report. All three - Jonathan Powell, Alastair Campbell and Baroness Morgan - are party-political appointments. The traditional civil service has been thrust aside, a trend which caused the former Cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong, at a Westminster party last week, to mutter the following words of criticism: 'I am worried about the politicisation of the civil service. It is a particular problem in Downing Street.' This was an astonishing, unprecedented warning from such a senior and discreet figure, and as such a testament to the scale of the problem.

There are two key elements to the constitutional coup so noiselessly carried out within No. 10. The first is the effective abolition of the old post of principal private secretary to the Prime Minister. The formal title continues, but the job has been downgraded and the essential functions devolved to Jonathan Powell, a party official. This means that the man who acts as the Prime Minister's 'gatekeeper' is no longer a civil servant but a political hack. It was Jonathan Powell who allowed Tony Blair to meet the billionaire Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone without civil servants present. He may have played a similar role in promoting the interests of Enron, the Indian financier Lakshmi Mittal, and doubtless any number of other figures of whom we as yet know nothing. The problem with having a party official as chief of staff in Downing Street is very clear. He is supposed to guard the interests of the New Labour faction on the one hand, and the nation at large on the other. It is a system which embeds the risk of corruption into the heart of government - which was why Gladstone put a stop to it.

The second half of Tony Blair's constitutional coup was equally important. …

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