Magazine article The Spectator

Too Damned Civil

Magazine article The Spectator

Too Damned Civil

Article excerpt

SIR Lewis Namier's classic study, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, painted a devastating portrait of the British ruling class on the eve of the American revolution. Sir Lewis demonstrated how idealism, party division and disinterested public service had no relevance at the time. Public men sought office as a means of enriching themselves and rewarding their relations, clients and dependants. A change of government, such as the one brought about by the death of George II, did not merely mean a change of ministers. It brought about a wholesale transfer of public offices. Politicians sought power in order to pillage the state machine. The post of paymastergeneral, to be occupied with more distinction than is commonly recognised by Geoffrey Robinson 250 years later, was the foundation of several immense fortunes.

This in some ways agreeable system persisted for many years after the accession of George III and is still in use in many parts of the world today. Through much of Continental Europe, the Indian subcontinent ' and all of Africa, government is viewed at least in part as a method of personal enrichment. Even in the United States of America, where the Founding Fathers sought to copy the British system with the monarch left out, good old-fashioned 18th-century jobbery is an obtrusive feature.

Doubtless it would have continued in Britain too but for the Victorians and, in particular, the great civil-service reformer Sir Stafford Northcote, whose statue still broods over the central lobby of the House of Commons. Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan introduced competitive examination, a method described by Trollope as `that damnable system of promotion by socalled merit'. They invented the mandarin: the disinterested civil servant with a duty to remain as remote as possible from the fury of quotidian party conflict. This was then, and remains today, an unusual and distinctive idea. All British governments and mainstream political parties recognised the independent and separate status of the civil service right up to the end of the 20th century.

There are now unmistakable signs that Tony Blair and New Labour are determined to undo the Northcote/Trevelyan reforms and return the British to the jobbery and cronyism that was so characteristic of the 18th century. The honours system has been abused on a scale that would make Sir Robert Walpole's jaw drop. More peerages have been created in three years of Tony Blair than the last ten of the Tories, many handed out in exchange for hard cash. Practically every day fresh evidence emerges of systematic abuse of the civil service for party-political ends. The most extraordinary revelation in Geoffrey Robinson's recent memoir had nothing to do with the Mandelson home loan. It was the fact that Sir Richard Wilson was used as a factotum to carry out the Prime Minister's political errands. Unable to summon up the will to dispatch Robinson himself, Tony Blair sent along his Cabinet Secretary. Perhaps filled with a sense of shame at the impropriety of it all, Wilson botched the job. Nor was this an isolated occurrence. He has been used for the same undignified and improper purposes on at least one other occasion, when Downing Street felt that the time had come to get rid of Frank Field.

The Wilson/Robinson imbroglio was a case-study of how a civil servant could be readily suborned for political ends. More common - or at any rate better documented - are instances of politicians meddling in roles that have, ever since Sir Stafford Northcote, fallen to civil servants. This inability to distinguish between political party and the state has been a notable feature of New Labour in government. Within hours of winning the election Tony Blair insisted that his two main henchmen, the chief of staff and the press secretary, should be given powers to tell civil servants what to do. This move was a direct attack on the principle of `fair and open competition' enshrined in the civil-service reform of 1870: which was why special Orders in Council were issued to make the impropriety legal. …

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