Learned plugging of Whitehall gaps

September 1, 1995

Yes, Minister! and Alan Clark's Diaries may give the impression that the workings of British government are widely understood, but in fact the field is one of the black holes of academic knowledge.

Rectifying that anomaly is the purpose of the Economic and Social Research Council's Whitehall programme, an interdisciplinary project incorporating 23 studies, to be launched later this month.

Programme coordinator Rod Rhodes, professor of politics at Newcastle University, notes that most work in the area has been done by journalists rather than academics: "People like Peter Hennessy, Hugo Young and David Leigh have made significant contributions."

He confesses to a degree of mystification at the academic gap, but suggests intellectual and practical reasons. "It may reflect both the dominance of theory within British political science and the impact of American behavioural preoccupations. There has been a tendency to study elections and the psychology of politics rather than institutions, which have been marginalised."

The practical problems relate to Britain's culture of governmental secrecy. "It was believed that it would be horribly difficult to get the information needed." That, he hopes, will change in the light of the Waldegrave initiative on public documents and the support given by cabinet secretary Robin Butler.

Professor Rhodes says: "We are pushing at an open door. I also suspect the impact of secrecy on the availability of records has been exaggerated. Many people assume that about 50 per cent of documents are withheld while my impression is that it is closer to 20 per cent."

Researchers will be able to seek waivers on the 30-year rule covering the release of material. "The basic rule will be that it should not cause embarrassment to serving ministers and civil servants. This seems a fair rule to me. This is an academic project, not one seeking to make headlines. Inevitably it will deny us some access, but we will get a great deal that has not previously been available," he says.

He emphasises that it is an inter-disciplinary project: "It should illustrate the benefits that one discipline can bring to another. It would do political science no harm if more practitioners learned how to operate the Public Record Office or to analyse the evidence provided by a historical document. I would like to have seen a greater contribution from the lawyers, for instance in a project on judicial review. But none of those proposals came through the selection process."

Among the gaps to be filled is a study of the differing cultures of various government departments. "Roy Jenkins wrote an ext-remely interesting article on the difference between the Home Office and the Treasury back in the late 1960s, but there has been virtually nothing since. That seems to me an immense gap in our understanding of the workings of government."

It is by no means the most spectacular omission: "The last substantial study of ministers was in 1974. We know very little about the advice they receive, how good it is, how they go about reaching decisions and other central issues."

There is also a shortage of comparative data - three projects will look at parallel institutions in other countries such as Sweden, France and Germany. Inevitably any contemporary study of British government will examine the impact of Thatcherism, but Professor Rhodes is determined that this should not become too dominant: "The difficulty is that it is so close to us. But it is important that these studies should be detached and dispassionate - and that they should pay as much attention to how the process of government changed under Attlee, Macmillan or Wilson."

While its interdisciplinarity reflects one current research council fashion, the programme has less to do with the current mode for wealth creation. "This is pure curiosity-driven research," says Professor Rhodes. "That's what we're good at."

Curiosity-driven, but in no sense irrelevant: "It is in all our interests to have a good account of the way in which Britain is governed."

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