Magazine article The Spectator

Civil Approach

Magazine article The Spectator

Civil Approach

Article excerpt

The first of the two-part The Whitehall Village on Radio Four last week (Tuesday) was a gentle stroll through the Civil Service, what it does and how it has changed and so on, and showed us what decent chaps and sweeties the boys and girls of Whitehall really are, as they beaver away to make life for us even more difficult than it is already. The presenter was Romola Christopherson, a former civil servant, so there wasn't much in the way of revelation from her friends.

Christopherson wanted to know what blunders Sir Richard Wilson, the present Cabinet secretary and head of the home Civil Service, might have made in his long career. Wilson described a catastrophe of such magnitude that one wondered how he had survived. As private secretary to Nicholas Ridley in the Heath government, he was asked to fetch some drinks to celebrate the result of negotiations with the shipbuilding industry. Finding no minions in the outer office he made what he thought were some gins-and-tonics. Horror of horrors: he'd mixed gin-and-soda instead. No doubt he learned his lesson and can now hand Tony Blair a decent cocktail after a hard Cabinet meeting.

Robin Young (no knighthood yet but don't blink), permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, thought the qualities of the Civil Service that would endure were integrity, impartiality and thoroughness. He was struck by how much his EU colleagues admired and envied Whitehall, partly because civil servants gave fearless advice to ministers but also because 'we don't sign up to something without understanding what it is and how we're going to do it'. Unlike, he added, some other countries.

Christopherson said, 'He didn't say which countries and, of course, I didn't ask.' Oh? Why not? Perhaps she knew she'd receive a Sir Humphrey-like reply but it would have been worth a try. No doubt British civil servants do query the mad torrent of legislation coming out of Brussels; the trouble is, they and their politicians still cave in most of the time and, worse, goldplate it when they implement it here. As Milton Friedman said, 'Governments never learn. Only people learn.'

Apart from hearing from low-paid civil servants at benefit offices, most of the programme was spent talking to the `faststream', the 4 per cent of the 5,000 applicants selected annually to rise to the top. Christopherson, however, ventured down to the 'non-fast-stream', in the shape of Steve Watts who is now involved in setting up the new Greater London Authority, the Livingstonian Hell that is to be visited on London this year. …

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