Making a wrong into a right is the correct response

Ministries of Deception
April 11, 2003

The seven case studies in Tim Slessor's book questioning Whitehall's belief in its own infallibility are reminiscent of the events in Little Dorrit . In Dickens' book, chapter ten, "Containing the whole science of government", sees Arthur Clennam visiting the Circumlocution Office and encountering Barnacle Junior. A naive Clennam begins by demanding: "I want to know," to which a perplexed Barnacle replies: "Look here. Upon my soul you musn't come into the place saying you want to know, you know."

Little has changed since the 19th century. It is, of course, the very essence of the bureaucratic process that decisions should be made secretly and that, once made, they are correct even if wrong. Similarly, even when, long after the event, Slessor and others argue that the official explanation of events is not only wrong but known to be wrong, infallibility has to be asserted. Part of the explanation is obviously a form of group dynamics - the need to be a team player and support the official line. Slessor also identifies a central problem in questioning the official case. The section of the ministry that was responsible for the decision (even though the staff may have changed) will be responsible for answering any query, what Slessor calls "the Whitehall loop". Not surprisingly, the official line is maintained and infallibility is reasserted.

One of the most remarkable examples of the latter came when the Labour cabinet was discussing the introduction of the ombudsman in the early years of Harold Wilson's government. Douglas Houghton (a former Inland Revenue tax inspector) argued that having an ombudsman was pointless because "maladministration" simply did not exist in Whitehall.

Slessor's case studies suggest, as most outsiders suspect, that "maladministration" in various forms is common in Whitehall. The important point is what happens when decisions are questioned or "maladministration" is discovered. The bureaucratic response is to draw together. Outright lying is unusual. There are, however, a few known cases. For example, in December 1956 Anthony Eden, speaking in the House of Commons, denied there had been collusion with Israel at Suez by saying: "No plans (were) got together to attack Egypt." A few civil servants knew he was lying but chose to do nothing about it.

The more common response, and one that the civil service is trained to provide, is the use of clever drafting, or being economical with the truth.

The usual result is that cases get bogged down in detail and the nuances of exactly what words were meant to mean. Only rarely is a "smoking gun" revealed.

All but one of Slessor's case studies involves the Ministry of Defence. He covers the Chinook air crash, the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands, Gulf war syndrome, Major Stankovic, Colonel Carter and the longest running saga of all - the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious in 1940 (in which Slessor's father died). In many ways, the focus on the MoD is a pity because it is not the sole perpetrator of deception, although ill-founded claims about "national security" provide easy excuses not to reveal information.

Slessor could easily have covered other areas such as the fiasco over bovine spongiform encephalopathy and the "arms for Iraq" scandal of the 1980s, about which copious information is available. Equally good would have been the Rhodesian sanctions-breaking of the late 1960s. In the last, a minister connived with British oil firms to break the sanctions his government had introduced, then publicly slated other states for not doing enough to stop sanctions busting.

The one case study that only partially involves the MoD is that involving the island of Diego Garcia. This is one of the most shameful episodes in British administration in the past half century. At the request of the US, and to save money on the Polaris purchase, a new colony was created by bribing Mauritius to give up part of its territory. The inhabitants, the Ilois, were then removed to provide the virgin land the US wanted for its massive base.

What is interesting and special about this affair is that the Foreign Office knew it was breaking the UN Charter by denying fundamental rights to the inhabitants. The cover-up took place before the event not afterwards.

Officials communicated quite openly about the lies they were concocting and the best way to dissemble these in public. Even after the recent legal case that revealed massive official duplicity, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to prevaricate over compensation.

In other cases, the cover-up came after the event as part of an effort to maintain the fiction that was the original explanation. The refusal to admit error was backed by denial, obstruction and limited concessions. Even now, more than 60 years later, the Royal Navy is determined to preserve its reputation by insisting that the ill-defended HMS Glorious was sunk, with the loss of more than 1,200 lives, because the captain was worried about his fuel reserves. It will not admit he was returning early to Scapa Flow so he could court-martial an officer with whom he had had a disagreement.

Slessor is a journalist and writes well. At times, he gets bogged down with details of particular incidents, but this reflects the way Whitehall likes to defend itself. The book provides a good series of case studies for students of British politics and administration, offering a healthy dose of reality on bureaucratic priorities.

Clive Ponting is a former civil servant who is reader in politics and international relations, University of Wales, Swansea.

Ministries of Deception: Cover-ups in Whitehall

Author - Tim Slessor
ISBN - 1 85410 877 8
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £18.99
Pages - 303

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