Magazine article The Spectator

The Coming Mandarin Wars

Magazine article The Spectator

The Coming Mandarin Wars

Article excerpt

IF Mr Blair has any illusions left about the consequences of fragmenting Britain's government, his officials do not. Inside Whitehall civil servants privately predict that internal rows over devolution will overshadow not just the coming year but a Blairite second term. Officials foresee a Labour government in London set against rival administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff as well as against his own MPs in the English regions and against an elected Mayor of London -particularly if that should be Ken Livingstone.

Whitehall is quietly trying to work out formulae for dealing with these new, 'alien' governments. It has quickly discovered that one of its priorities must be to keep its secrets secret from the Welsh and the Scots against the day when their rulers have different aims from those of Downing Street.

It will not just be Labour politicians who will be embattled: there will be a war of mandarin against mandarin. Professor Robert Hazell, himself a former civil servant, warns in a new book, Constitutional Futures - A History of the Next Ten Years, that Wales and Scotland will each demand an independent civil service separate from Whitehall and no longer answerable to Sir Richard Wilson, Cabinet Secretary in London. Why should he have a say in Scots civil service appointments or promotions?

Professor Hazell points out that even if Labour controls Westminster, Cardiff and Edinburgh, it cannot be assumed that there will be any unity of purpose in the three capitals. Indeed not. The nations and regions of the UK will have different priorities from those of the London centre. Yet it sometimes seems as if New Labour has failed to face up to the fact. Mr Blair's crude use of trade-union block votes to secure victory in Wales for Alun Michael will stir up distrust and disunity between Cardiff and London from the outset. Even the pliant Mr Michael will have to display token opposition to Downing Street if he is to have any credibility. Mr Blair might reflect that the word 'Wales' comes from the Anglo-Saxon meaning 'foreigners'. And very Welsh they are likely to be in their attitude towards him.

But it is the Scots who pose the most immediate problem. There is every likelihood that Labour will not win outright in Scotland's May elections. Instead we may see the Lib-Dems in coalition with Labour or the Scottish Nationalists. Either combination would be anathema to Mr Blair as well as forcing Whitehall to rethink its allegiances.

Civil servants in what is now the Scottish Office will be able to obey their elected government no matter who wins at the polls. But London civil servants will face a quandary. Whitehall's duty is to serve the elected government of the day and that means Labour. It is not Whitehall's job to serve minor British opposition parties like the SNP or Scots Lib-Dems. Nor is this a matter of constitutional theory. It raises hard practical questions about what information officials in London should share with their counterparts in Scotland and what both sides should do when they disagree on policy.

In an attempt to settle these problems, Whitehall departments have been negotiating a series of concordats with Scottish Office civil servants. …

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