The Official History of the British Civil Service: Reforming the Civil Service, Volume 1: The Fulton Years, 1966-81

July 21, 2011

The Official History Programme was established in 1908 to record and learn lessons from the Boer and Russo-Japanese wars, and continued in 1919 with a series of wartime histories. In 1957, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook, urged all government departments to write historical accounts of key policy decisions, declaring: "We make many forecasts but few retrospects. More post-mortems would be salutary." Senior officials, however, claimed that they were too busy making history to have time to write it. In 1966, Harold Wilson initiated a permanent Peacetime Programme of Official Histories, to be compiled not by officials but by "historians eminent in the field".

The first volume of this official history begins with a long, masterly introductory section covering the years from the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854 to the setting up of the Fulton Committee in 1966. Its central argument is that "much of the mystique of Northcote-Trevelyan is founded on myth", for Northcote-Trevelyan was "silent on such core principles as the impartiality and anonymity of officials" and was "largely ignored" when government came to expand in the Edwardian years, since the initial pillars of state welfare such as national insurance and labour exchanges were "constructed in defiance of, rather than in accordance with, its recommendations".

The establishment of Fulton was a response to a loss of national self-confidence in the years after the Suez crisis of 1956, when Britain's sluggish economic performance came to be contrasted with that of the Continent. The Civil Service was to prove a handy scapegoat both for the Left, which saw it as amateurish and elitist, and the Right, which saw it as too committed to big government.

Rodney Lowe is scathing about the quality of the Fulton report. The committee attacked the Civil Service for amateurism but was itself amateurish in its research and its recommendations. The oral evidence it received was not properly recorded and its minutes were sporadic. Remarkably, the social survey commissioned from A.H. Halsey and Ivor Crewe was completed too late to have any impact on the report, an early draft having been ignored by the committee since, in the words of one of its members, it contained "mistakes of fact, logical errors, obscurity, turgidity of expression" and showed "insufficient understanding of the Civil Service". The report nevertheless gave imprimatur to the managerial revolution, a revolution that was to do so much damage not only to the Civil Service but also to the NHS and the universities.

Fulton's instincts were Fabian. It hoped that managerial efficiency would legitimise big government. But shortly after the report was published, the post-war consensus on the role of the state began to dissolve. Sir Douglas Allen, the head of the Civil Service, noted a "break-down of respect for the national Parliament and an increase in divisiveness and self-seeking". In consequence, the Civil Service, seen by some as all-powerful and conspiratorial, began to feel beleaguered, "less confident", in Allen's view, "than at any time in the postwar period". So, as Lowe points out: "The crisis of consensus outside Whitehall was matched by a crisis of authority within."

How could the Civil Service retain its position as guardian of the public good when it had become increasingly difficult to ascertain what the public good actually was? Instead it came to be regarded, thanks in part to the influence of the public-choice school of social scientists, as just another interest group, dedicated to its perks and privileges and with a vested interest in an expanding state.

During the golden age of the Civil Service, it had been seen as a profession. To Fulton's accusation of amateurism, mandarins could reasonably reply that civil servants were, through their understanding of the machinery of government, experts in public administration. But after Fulton it came to be seen as a branch of management. Therefore, so it was argued, it should adapt the disciplines of the private sector. But as Lowe notices, the managerial analysis failed to appreciate the importance of the constitutional principles regulating the Civil Service, such as ministerial responsibility. There is no counterpart to these principles in the private sector, and they make it impossible for government to be run like a business.

This history is densely written, top-heavy with detail, far too expensive and not always easy to read. The detail is, however, lightened by acerbic comments on ministers and officials, and redeemed on occasion by malice. The publishers have done the author few favours by putting the valuable and informative footnotes in 132 pages at the end of the book. Nevertheless, Lowe has written an outstanding work of scholarship that is also a triumphant vindication of the value of administrative history. It will constitute a locus classicus for anyone seeking to understand the history of the Civil Service.

The Official History of the British Civil Service: Reforming the Civil Service, Volume 1: The Fulton Years, 1966-81

By Rodney Lowe. Routledge, 552pp, £70.00. ISBN 9780415588645. Published 9 January 2011

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