POLITICISATION OF THE CIVIL SERVICE – 7 May 2008

Dr Julian Lewis: Because I was elected on 1 May 1997, which could be described as the mirror image for the Conservative Party of the significance of 1 May 2008 for the Government, my experience of direct dealings with civil servants is limited to two periods in my life: first, when I was an academic researcher delving into the civil service archives for the period covering the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War; and secondly, when I was deputy director of the Conservative Research Department. Happily, my duties included shining a spotlight on Leninists in the Labour Party, helpfully acknowledged in the entertaining speech by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins).

From the first experience, I concluded that the civil service has, in fact, always been highly political – but not party political. That is one of the two themes that I wish to develop. From the latter experience, I can throw some light on the questions asked by my exuberant hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Charles Walker) about where special advisers come from, and, indeed, where they go – or at least, what happened in the closing years of the Thatcher Administration. We are discussing the perpetual problem of the balance between professional expertise and mandated political leadership. Many years ago, long before “Yes Minister” made the notion of Ministers having to be house-trained by their civil servants almost a byword of popular humour, I remember reading an essay by the late Tony Crosland, in which he spelt out the reasons why Minister were often ineffective in government, or at least, why their policies differed so little from those of their predecessors. He explained that even the most intelligent Minister, on taking up a new position, could probably expect to take a year to 18 months before gaining command of their brief. Within another year or 18 months, they might be moved on to another job.

The problem that Ministers faced, of not having sufficient expertise, has in large measure been addressed by the appointment of special advisers, and I am going to sing their praises in a moment or two. First, however, I want to refer to the period in which I delved into the archives for the period 1942 to 1947, during which Government Departments were trying to work out what the British Empire – as it still just about was at that stage – would have to defend itself against when the Second World War was over.

Huge arguments erupted between the Foreign Office, which believed that the Anglo-Soviet alliance of 1941 onwards – the treaty was signed in 1942 – should be the cornerstone of our post-war foreign policy, and the Chiefs of Staff and their advisers, who believed that the Soviet Union would probably be the greatest potential military threat facing this country. What struck me at the time was that an argument was raging, effectively, between two Departments of civil servants, and how little the Ministers, let alone the Prime Minister, were involved in the process.

The debate was highly political, but it was not party political. It therefore occurred to me that perhaps the real power in the land lay more with the professional civil servant and the professional expert, rather than with the political leader. I do not think anyone under any Government would dispute that a good civil servant is one with strong opinions about the political issues of the day, who will argue those opinions on their merits, provided that they do not allow themselves unduly to be swayed by party political considerations.

The reverse of that coin is that if a Minister comes into office without a high degree of preliminary expertise, he or she will be somewhat adrift, because at the point at which the Minister wishes to take party political considerations into account, the civil servant, if he or she is doing the job properly, will rightly turn round to the Minister and say, “I really can’t advise you on that, Minister. I am not party political and this is a party political matter.”

When I was working in the Conservative Research Department, I used to see a career progression, almost. We would have our individual desk officers, as we still do today, shadowing each Department of State. The young people working at those desks would develop considerable expertise. When they had done that for a few years, and because we were in government, they would be able to apply for, and more often than not get, jobs as special advisers. As I said in an earlier intervention, it was felt quite adequate to have two special advisers in most Departments, one sitting more or less at the right hand of the Secretary of State, and the other being available to the middle-ranking and junior Ministers.

I thought that that was a thoroughly good thing, because it meant that the Minister had someone to whom he or she could turn for advice when party political matters were relevant, and it was a way in which the political party to which the Minister belonged could have a direct channel to the Minister, without being bogged down or prevented from reaching the Minister by the serried ranks of party politically neutral civil servants in between. I thought that that was a good system, and I believe to this day that it is a good system, but we do not require many people to fulfil that role.

On the contrary, the fact that there was just one special adviser for each Cabinet Minister and one more for the rest was a very good thing, because it meant that there was no dithering about who to consult, there was a direct channel of communication, and the Minister had someone on whom to rely to consider the political implications – someone whose time was not taken up with numerous other duties such as an elected politician inevitably must perform, and someone who was party political and also an expert in the field. Such special advisers went on, in many cases, to become Conservative MPs, including the present Leader of the Opposition – and a jolly good thing too.

But there is a different sort of special adviser out there today. That sort of special adviser is not a confidant for a Minister, not a channel of communication for the party, and certainly not someone doing blue-skies thinking – or perhaps red-dawn thinking for the present Government. It is someone whose job it is to go out there and distort the news, or at least massage the news, for the benefit of relationships with reporters. When my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) winds up, I will be interested to hear how he reacts to this suggestion: that when a Conservative Government next come to power, party political appointees should only be special advisers and no longer be press officers. They would do precisely what their name implies: give special advice, not spin.