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4 October 1999

Not in front of the servants

Men in grey suits: the revolution - New Labour likes to think it is carving out a modern cl

By John Garrett

There was a moment, 30 years ago, when Britain stood on the brink of a far-reaching social revolution. But it was stifled. Treasury mandarins with the well-honed instincts of those born to protect the establishment made sure of that.

The battleground was a seemingly modest proposal to modernise the Civil Service and ease it from the clutches of crusty Sir Humphreys into the hands of a classless, merit-based, technically competent workforce. The proposal came from an official committee chaired by Sir John (later Lord) Fulton and, if it had had its way, Britain would now be a very different place.

The report, published in 1968, was “newer” both in style and intent than new Labour’s recent white paper, Modernising Government. It was probably the most radical public document to be published in the past 50 years. It attempted, in one giant heave, to dismantle the white, male, public school, Oxbridge arts graduate, “gentleman amateur” culture of the higher Civil Service.

It wanted “a classless Civil Service” in which people could move into senior jobs according to ability rather than qualifications on entry. That caused an uproar. Another recommendation that terrified the old guard was that the service should recruit graduates with skills relevant to particular posts, such as numeracy or technical expertise, rather than continuing to grant crown-prince status to Oxbridge historians.

The mandarins were rattled by the proposals, as they had been from the outset by the commission’s working methods. A consultancy group led by Norman Hunt (later Lord Crowther-Hunt) set out to talk directly to all grades of civil servants. I was a member of the group. We interviewed 600 people and visited not only a high-powered Treasury unit but also the social security office in Wigan, a naval depot and a computer installation in Newcastle.

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We found a Civil Service of no fewer than 1,400 classes, some with a few score members and one with just one member. Each class was defined by entry qualifications, and there was little mobility between them. For instance, members of the Experimental Officers’ Class could seldom rise to the Scientific Class, however excellent their specialist skills. Accountants, doctors or statisticians could not enter the 2,500-member Administrative (“mandarin”) Class. It was a baroque caste system. The waste of talent in the lower levels was criminal – the bright, O-level school leaver was kept filing for years.

A social survey revealed that 85 per cent of the mandarins were from a middle-class background (compared with 51 per cent ten years previously); 71 per cent had arts degrees, mainly in history and classics; and 73 per cent were from Oxbridge (also a recent increase). An already rigid class system was intensifying.

The mandarins rarely had experience of managing anything. They wrote elegant essays to each other. They were switched from job to job at two-year intervals on the basis that knowing too much would cloud their judgement. Their overweening arrogance made them dreadful managers of people, but then management was anyway thought an inferior occupation to be carried out by the lower classes. Specialists were kept to advise them, a principle cynically known as “the expert on tap, but not on top”.

Based on the findings of our group, the Fulton committee made 150 recommendations for modernising the service.

The Whitehall establishment went potty, particularly when it read Hunt’s provocative introduction to the report: “The Home Civil Service today is still fundamentally the product of the 19th century. The tasks it faces are those of the second half of the 20th century. This is what we have found; it is what we seek to remedy.” Hunt observed that the service was still based on the philosophy of the amateur: “the gifted layman moving from job to job”; scientists, engineers and other specialists were not given the authority or opportunities they ought to have; too few top people were skilled managers; there was not enough contact between the service and the real world.

In the Daily Telegraph Lord Redcliffe-Maud wrote “give me the first class man in any honour’s school, provided he has character as well”.

In the Daily Express Wilfred Sendal wrote: “I would far rather be ruled by men who were familiar with the tragedies of Sophocles, who had a grounding in the wisdom of Socrates and Plato and then topped it up by a wide reading of Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke and Stuart Mill than by one who was an expert electronics engineer or a first-class nuclear physicist.”

The Lords denounced the report as an outrage, untrue, unfair, Marxist. Only Lord Arran, who had actually been a junior civil servant, supported the report.

The Treasury’s determination to sink the report was awesome. I watched transfixed as it moved into action. It produced very few copies of our consultancy report and then only a week or so after the main report, so that it was no longer newsworthy. Indeed, part of our report – a study of a Treasury division concerned with nationalised industry investment plans – was never published at all. I may be the only person alive with a copy. The social survey was purposely eclipsed by a Treasury report on the same day lauding the Civil Service selection procedures.

Harold Wilson, then prime minister, at first welcomed the report in its entirety. Shortly afterwards he was visited by the vice-chancellors of the ancient universities. He promptly dropped the call to recruit graduates with relevant skills.

Nothing was done until after the 1974 election when Robert Sheldon (a member of the Fulton committee) became minister for the Civil Service and appointed me his parliamentary private secretary. We had just made a start on a scheme to merge some Civil Service grades when Sheldon was promoted to the Treasury. Thus the struggle with the leviathan was abandoned. Wilson lost interest; Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan never had any.

The Civil Service has barely changed. The generalist still rules. The service still trumpets the virtues of an administrative fast stream (last year 66.5 per cent of its members had arts degrees; 43.5 per cent were from Oxbridge; 50 per cent from public schools). The establishment tries to deflect criticism by saying that there is also a fast stream for scientists and engineers. That is not the point. The Civil Service does not benefit from these skills in top management and policy-making. A few women have made it into the mandarin grades, but gentleman amateurs are still the rule.

New Labour’s white paper promises “joined-up government”, “joined-up policy-making”, “joined-up working” and “joined-up public service delivery”. It proposes to open up the “senior” Civil Service of 3,000 top jobs to women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. But, crucially, it intends to keep a fast-stream programme for generalist mandarins headed for the top jobs. Sir Humphrey has secured the future for his clones.

The writer was Labour spokesperson on the Civil Service, 1992-94

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