Everyday Life in British Government

June 23, 2011

This is a surprising book. One approaches an analysis of the inner workings of the Civil Service with something approaching trepidation. Of course it's an important topic, but how much will one's life be enriched by knowing the difference between a permanent secretary, a private secretary, a principal private secretary and a parliamentary private secretary? Not a great deal, perhaps, but understanding these differences is but one small part of the pleasure to be derived from R.A.W. Rhodes' account of life inside the Civil Service machine.

Although a political scientist by discipline, Rhodes has taken an anthropological approach to Whitehall. In the chapter "Protocols, rituals and languages", we learn, for example, that governmental pecking orders are established by who has to wait for whom at the start of a phone conversation. And Rhodes has diligently recorded a wide range of exchanges and conversations with some of the big beasts of the Whitehall jungle, coming away with tasty little vignettes such as this one:

"Permanent Secretary: The management (of change) is difficult and my box of tissues is on my desk for people bursting into tears in my office, which happens a lot.

Rhodes: How did you cope? Permanent Secretary: I handed them a tissue."

Rhodes approaches his task with - dare I say - a journalist's eye for detail and a diarist's propensity for whimsy. The "dare I say" is because neither Rhodes nor his subjects in the Whitehall jungle display much affection for journalists, describing them variously as "nasty", "a bad lot", "unfair", "ill-informed" and "impolite" (so much for Whitehall ambiguity). But there are more than touches of the journalist in Rhodes' own approach. He recalls how one minister under Tony Blair remarked that one of his ministerial colleagues was a supporter of Gordon Brown and hence difficult to work with, but added that "everyone has to have one". The whimsy keeps sneaking through when, for example, he describes what one department called "total honesty sessions" where all difficulties are supposed to be brought out into the open in a non-threatening atmosphere. "The evil thought crossed my mind", Rhodes writes, "that some university deans would benefit from similar sessions." And he recalls with pride the day when the tribe finally accepted him: "I felt I was part of the furniture when the messenger brought my tea in a mug without asking," he writes.

Perhaps the one lapse is Rhodes' odd blind spot about the media. Their importance is acknowledged on almost every page and yet he devotes no substantive part of the book to analysing and understanding them. He notes, for example, that "the modern Permanent Secretary numbers working with the media as one of the essential skills" and gives many examples of the media reaction to events influencing the response of the Whitehall machine. He was privileged, if that's the right word, to observe at close quarters the resignation of Estelle Morris as education secretary in 2002. He notes Morris' permanent secretary's observation that "the story ran so fast, the facts didn't matter" and he reflects that he "was amazed by their (the media's) cavalier behaviour. I thought they were ill-informed and impolite."

This blind spot notwithstanding, what shines through on almost every page is Rhodes' admiration for the civil servants he encounters. He is genuinely amazed and appalled at the non-stop stress they work under. And yet, despite all, he notes how they manage to "bring a calm insouciance to a demanding job". "Calm insouciance" - how's that for a vice-chancellor's job description?, one half expects Rhodes to opine.

Everyday Life in British Government

By R.A.W. Rhodes

Oxford University Press

368pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199601141

Published 21 April 2011

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