From blue lagoon to red sea

October 3, 1997

Ben Pimlott asks if choppy waters lie ahead for Captain Blair's ship of state

How great is the impact of Blair and Blairism on Whitehall? Relations between new ministers and established civil servants are almost surprisingly good. There is less mistrust between the two than in 1964 or 1979, when the incoming Labour government saw supposedly stick-in-the-mud civil servants as part of the problem.

At the same time, there is undoubtedly a buzz of excitement in Whitehall. As one official recently put it: "We're moving again, we're afloat." There have been alterations of technique and style to fit new personalities, with shifts of emphasis - including a reduction in formality. There are fewer cabinet committee meetings, and fewer meetings in general. More business is done on the telephone. Some detect an increase in the authority of the Treasury, partly reflecting the importance within the cabinet of the chancellor, with Gordon Brown as chief executive to the prime minister's executive chairman. In addition, there has been an influx of policy advisers into Whitehall, creating a more cohesive political core. The No. 10 policy unit has more political appointees on it, while the introduction of a non-civil servant as chief of staff is a significant novelty. The cross-departmental social exclusion unit is an interesting development, though it has precedents in, for example, the efficiency unit of Margaret Thatcher's government.

None of this, however, is nearly as sharp a break with precedent as occurred the last time Labour came to power after a long period in opposition, when a political office was first created in No. 10 Downing Street and political advisers were first properly introduced across Whitehall; or when Edward Heath came to power in 1970 and set up the CPRS (central policy review staff); or even when Harold Wilson returned to office in 1974, and established the policy unit. The biggest single change, introduced within days of the election, is in the relationship between the Treasury and the Bank of England. Otherwise, the Blair administration has done little to add to the basic furniture.

Should we therefore prepare to see an administratively conservative government? Will Blair remain happy with existing arrangements indefinitely? It seems unlikely. It is not just that every previous incoming prime minister got round to major changes in the structure of Whitehall sooner or later, or that - at least in institutional matters - Blair has shown himself a radical. It is also that the constitutional reforms already introduced, which are beginning to look like a revolution, in themselves have machinery implications.

In particular, Whitehall is still reeling from the devolution votes in Scotland and Wales, which will profoundly alter the way those nations are governed. We know there is to be a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly: the obvious corollary, though we do not yet know how far it may go, will be the creation of some kind of a Scottish and a Welsh state. Nor, of course, is devolution expected to stop there. The green paper on London, with its proposal for an elected mayor, the possibility of wider devolution in the regions and in Ulster, will all affect the balance and dynamics of contact between centre and periphery.

Then there is the question of Europe. If the government decides to take Britain into the monetary union, and integration proceeds apace, the question of how best to manage dealings between London and Brussels will become ever more pressing. Should we continue to rely on the diplomatic service? Or should we regard the European Union relationship as a qualitatively distinct branch of foreign affairs, requiring a separate European ministry?

But the very biggest questions are to do with the political centre. Here is the oldest chestnut of all, debated for the past 20 or 30 years, despite the huge changes of role, attitude and political culture that have occurred in that time. In a nutshell: if we are to have a highly centralised, perhaps even more centralised, system of government, is there a need for a proper prime minister's department, strengthened and expanded to take account of new demands and functions? Would such a change be desirable, and more convenient, from the prime minister's point of view? Would it be acceptable to the cabinet, or indeed to parliament? We have heard much about a British presidentialism - an idea that has been around since the days of Harold Wilson, if not Churchill. If that is the reality of our government, should it be institutionally acknowledged? Or has not the maintenance of convenient fictions - the concealment of the efficient secret behind, in this case, the dignified facade of cabinet government - long been a necessary protector of British liberties?

If the future of the advice and levers available to the prime minister is the most important topic, another one, nearly as big, is the future of the civil service itself.

It is certainly arguable that, while many of the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s have been beneficial, in some ways the civil service has been dangerously neglected, partly because of an ethic that has been hostile to the public sector in general, and partly because of changes in the private sector. One study points to the drastic decline in the proportion of high-flying university graduates seeking careers in the public service. Meanwhile, there has been a big increase in the number of short-stayers. These developments have inevitably affected the expectations, prestige and morale of the higher civil service, and must also eventually affect quality.

It is obviously vital that Britain should have the best civil service it can get. Hence there will be a need to examine more closely the structure of salaries, including a flexible approach to nontraditional short-term contracts.

Finally, there is the question of the ethos of Whitehall itself, and its relationship with ministers. As yet we do not know the shape of the promised Freedom of Information Bill, though we know the prime minister is behind it. Some cabinet ministers are less keen: remarks have been heard along the lines of "that sort of thing is all very well in opposition, but not in government". Who will win the argument remains to be seen.

If, however, freedom of information turns out to be a genuine reform, then its consequences for Whitehall can scarcely be exaggerated. Recent years have seen a merging of political and civil service advice, with officials frequently making little distinction between the two roles. A radical Freedom of Information Act could have the effect of pushing permanent officials back into a more formal relationship, heightening the distinction between political and nonpolitical. If that were to happen, then the need for a cabinet system, with a corps of overtly political advisers at the centre, might seem to be much greater.

Extract from a speech by Ben Pimlott, chairman of the ESRC Whitehall programme, to the "Future Whitehall" conference in London last week.

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