Politics - Anne Perkins on the Blairification of the civil service
The Banquo at the Hutton inquiry is Sir Andrew Turnbull, cabinet secretary. He should be protecting
Poor Tony Blair. If he were given to self-pity (safe to assume he isn't) he would surely feel he was reaping a poor reward for his efforts to style himself as a paradigm for the progressive politician. Each time he presents himself as open, accessible and interested only in doing as much good as he can through the antiquated and awkward institutions endowed to him by British political history, he seems to enhance his reputation for bullying and political chicanery. It hardly seems fair.
Press times force me to stick my neck out before I hear the Prime Minister's unprecedented testimony to Lord Hutton. But no one doubts that he believes what he says, and talks with the persuasive force of one who is convinced he is right. His problem is that the voters find it hard to hear what he says over the noise of what he has done.
There is a feeling abroad that the Blair project they once admired has changed; that, faced with an electorate which would much rather go, say, binge drinking than turn up to vote, Blair is increasingly behaving as if the country is best run without the distracting cacophony of democratic debate.
The Hutton inquiry, set up independently of parliament in order to carry more weight than the tainted foreign affairs select committee (tainted, that is, by its perceived lack of independence from the government), was confidently expected to provide total and, just as importantly, plausible vindication of Blair's honourable conduct in convincing the country of the need for war with Iraq. This confidence, we now know, was a reflection of that of the spymaster John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
It has hardly come as a surprise to discover that Downing Street manages its relations with journalists with obsessive jealousy. That, after all, is why there is an inquiry, one which might find that these relationships played a significant role in the death of David Kelly. The past three weeks of evidence have merely provided unedifying documentary proof of what was already widely known.
But below the daily headlines, we can now see what has happened over the past six years to the substructure of government. Hutton demonstrates, to anyone who cares to look, the impact of the political culture of Blairism on Whitehall and its senior officials: the erosion of the last vestiges of a civil service that sees itself as the custodian and guarantor of the conventions and protocols of good governance.
When Labour came to power there were, at first, expressions of surprised enthusiasm for the way those manning the great engine rooms of state adapted so smoothly, and anticipated so excellently the requirements of their new political masters. The initial enthusiasm degenerated into a low-key but morale-sapping attack on the average white male
Oxbridge graduate's ignorance of cutting-
edge communications technology, such as mobile phones. There were changes in personnel. Now, the uppermost echelons of Whitehall appear Blairite to a man and woman - not in the sense of being Labour-voting, which is quite irrelevant, but because they know what their political masters are looking for.
Any long period of single-party rule is likely to wear down the doctrine of political impartiality. Like anyone else, senior officials approaching the final five years or so of their careers calculate their chances of promotion. Hutton has revealed that successful civil servants are likely to be those who have absorbed the managerial culture of Blairism: such as Sir Kevin Tebbit, permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence, who reacts to crisis by heading for the Prime Minister's study to discuss presentational implications with Alastair Campbell; or John Scarlett, who, far from having been asked to sex up his assessment of Iraq's military capabilities, had - it emerges - been warned to tone it down. One can safely assume he would not have been invited to prepare the infamous dossier had he not proved himself an enthusiast for preparing secret intelligence for public consumption.
On the face of it, disquiet at the Blairification of the senior civil service could be attributed to the kind of obstructive old-fogeyism the Prime Minister publicly laments from time to time. But this constant undermining of the integrity of the civil service can damage the very efficiency that Blair intends to promote. This is illustrated by the role Dr Kelly's disenchantment with his superiors may have played in undermining his employers.
Dr Kelly told the Newsnight science editor, Susan Watts, that he regarded the Downing Street press office as synonymous with Campbell. In the same way, one imagines it would be hard for an unhappy intelligence operative to voice concerns to Scarlett. So Scarlett could tell Lord Hutton on 26 August: "No worries of any kind were expressed to me at any stage . . ." Of course not. In the eyes of his subordinates, he was one of them.
Which brings us to the Banquo of the Hutton inquiry: Sir Andrew Turnbull. The cabinet secretary and head of the Home Civil Service, the mandarin's mandarin, has yet to be spotted in the environs of the Royal Courts of Justice. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that security matters are the remit of another Whitehall magnate favoured by Blair, Sir David Omand. None the less, there is a feeling that the man who should be guarantor of the independence of his officials is keeping his head down, in what could almost be seen as an undignified manner.
"Turnbull," commented one senior Whitehall figure who preferred not to be named, "has a very important interest and so far he's been ducking it." Turnbull has made no secret of his lack of enthusiasm for the more traditional interpretation of his responsibilities. He is not interested in the calls for a statutory civil service code that might circumscribe politicians' desire to interpose political demands on the internal Whitehall management - what might be called, broadly, matters of constitutional propriety.
Or, at least, not nearly as interested as he is in those matters that interest the Prime Minister - in particular, the question of turning all those top-grade civil servants who patrol the corridors of power into chief executives, charged with delivering on specific government objectives. His approach is already enshrined in a system of appraisal that includes marks for attitude - which, it might be imagined, encourages any officials who feel queasy at what they are asked to do to button their lips.
Blair was typically dismissive of precedent when he invited a judge to do a flash inquiry into an issue already trawled over, albeit ineffectually, by MPs in public and private. It seems likely he will get from it the vindication he wants. But as he prepares for what will surely be the most difficult year he has yet faced as Prime Minister, he will not be able to escape the burden of what he did not want from it. By laying bare the mechanics of No 10, Lord Hutton has added powerfully to the barrier of mistrust Blair had already created between himself and the voters.
John Kampfner returns next week
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis