Is Sir Humphrey Being Lined Up For a Fall?


Attacks on the Civil Service are nothing new. But when they come form a new government less than a year in office, something strange is happening.

There are two views of the Civil Service.

The first, official, version is that, in the words of Lord Armstrong it’s former head, “the civil service has no constitutional personality separate and apart from that of the government of the day.”  They are the exclusive servants of the government. They are not ‘neutral’, but rather they are ‘serial monogamists’, loyal absolutely to “their” ministers.

The other view comes from “Yes, Minister” and various critiques from both Left and Right over the years. In this version, civil servants are self-interested bureaucrats with their own agenda. They are wily thwarters of ministerial ambitions. Conservative, not in a political, but in a resistant to change sense.

When David Cameron spoke recently about “the enemies of enterprise” in Whitehall he was clearly drawing on the ‘Yes Minister’ image of the Civil Service. His attack was ferocious enough to provoke a response from Sir Gus O’Donnell (or GOD as he signs himself) and other senior civil servants.

This is quite a turnaround. Only 9 months ago the Civil Service, led by GOD, had played a crucial role in facilitating the creation of the Coalition government. One could even argue they had gone too far in apparently favoring a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition outcome, a detailed (ish) Coalition Agreement and a deal that would (supposedly) last for a full parliament.

But since then there have been a series of mishaps – ‘Building Schools for the Future’ mistakes when the lists of projects turned out to be wrong; the National Forests sell-off fiasco; the problems with the complications of the Child Benefit reductions, the most recent confusion over mobility allowances, and so on. Rightly or wrongly, Ministers are blaming Civil Servants for these cock-ups.

As well as Cameron’s negative comments, stories about Civil Service intransigence have now started to appear in places like The Spectator and The Times, probably inspired by the government’s spin machine.

Alongside the cuts, the Coalition government is attempting the biggest reform of the public sector since the creation of the Welfare state. This is fraught with dangers and pitfalls, as they are already finding out. Things go wrong in government.

True, they have some legitimate gripes against the Civil Service. It does not have a brilliant record on “implementation” – you only have to go through the endless stream of reports from Select Committees to see that. And it is often not that the Civil Service is bad at ‘implementation’ per se, but that it is often bad at designing policies that can be implemented well.

Having recognized all that, why are the politicians suddenly so concerned about supposed Civil Service blunders and/or Sir Humphrey-like intransigence?

Would it be too cynical to suggest the Politicians are lining Sir Humphrey up to take the fall if, or more likely when, things go horribly wrong with the governments massive reform programme?

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Is Sir Humphrey Being Lined Up For a Fall?

  1. Flemming Bjerke says:

    There is this a third view on civil servants: The guardians of correctness in public policy. To a priori distrust civil servants (as being just self-interested) is to erode their opportunity to guard correctness in public administration, thus leaving one main criterium of correctness: The successfulness of spin! This also amounts to politically (not economically) corrupting the civil service.

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