The Civil Service in Britain and France

By William A. Robson | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
CIVIL SERVANTS, MINISTERS, PARLIAMENT AND THE PUBLIC

By The RIGHT HON. The EARL ATTLEE, O.M.

WHEN I succeeded Mr Churchill as Prime Minister and returned to the conference at Potsdam, I took with me precisely the same team of civil servants, including even the principal private secretary, as had served my predecessor. This occasioned a lively surprise among our American friends who were accustomed to the American system whereby the leading official advisers of the President and of the members of his Cabinet are usually politically of his and their own colour. The incident brought out forcibly the very special position of the British Civil Service, a position which has developed during the past hundred years as the result of the Trevelyan-Northcote reforms.

I do not think that this remarkable attribute of impartiality in the British Civil Service is sufficiently widely known nor adequately recognized for what it is--one of the strongest bulwarks of democracy. I am often at pains to point this out and did so at a conference of Asiatic socialists in Rangoon in 1953 where I told them, to their surprise, that the same men who had worked out the details of Labour's Transport Act were now, at the behest of a Conservative Government, engaged in pulling it to pieces.

I doubt if this impartiality is sufficiently realized even here at home. There were certainly some people in the Labour Party who doubted whether the civil servants would give fair play to a socialist government, but all doubts disappeared with experience.

In this article I propose to say something of the relationship between the civil servant, the Minister, Parliament, and the public, drawing on what has now become a considerable experience.

The first thing a Minister finds on entering office is that he

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