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12 November 2001

Bring back the intellectuals

Once upon a time, special advisers didn't try to square the press: they were experts, often academic

By Roy Hattersley

Richard Wilson, the cabinet secretary, told the Public Administration Select Committee on 1 November that “what special advisers can and cannot do in a way of communicating the views of ministers” to civil servants is a “grey area” that needs to be clarified. Sir Richard deserves to be congratulated for his respect for the tradition of understatement, which has always characterised senior civil servants. The system of “special advisers” – desirable in itself – has been so debased by successive governments that a new set of rules is needed to guide their conduct. Unfortunately even that will not, in itself, rehabilitate their reputation. Like the integrity of so much of our system of government, the probity of ministers is more important than the precision of the regulations.

We can, however, attempt to answer the question that Jeremy Bentham would have asked about the whole office. What is the use of it? I am reluctant to describe what happened at the dawn of what, in the 1960s, was thought to be a daring innovation, as all reference to the Wilson and Callaghan governments gives Stephen Byers (who can take credit for bringing the special adviser system to the point of crisis) the opportunity to restate the moral philosophy that guides his policies: “They lost. We won.” But the truth is that, in those naive days, special advisers were expected to give special advice.

Barbara Castle, and subsequently David Ennals, at the Department for Social Services employed Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith, at the time the country’s most distinguished authorities on the subject. Barbara, at the Department for Employment, had recruited Bill McCarthy, reader in trade union studies at Nuffield College, Oxford. Jim Callaghan, at the Foreign Office, imported Tom (now Lord) McNally, the head of the Labour Party’s international department. When I was promoted to the cabinet, my special adviser was Professor (now also Lord) Maurice Peston. He told the permanent secretary that his job was “to give spurious intellectual justification to the secretary of state’s prejudices”. Remove the pejorative adjective – the product of Peston’s sense of humour – and that definition is about right. Special advisers were intended to give special advice about how the policy on which the election was fought and won could be implemented, whatever the civil service may have said.

Peston’s political position and mine were almost identical, but he had the advantage of knowing where the learned papers were buried. He was able to argue with authority, against an essentially quietist department, that the hopes we had of creating a more consumer-responsible economy could be realised. Before he and I left office – on the instruction of the electorate – he had supervised the preparation of a green paper that set out the most radical revision of competition policy since the war. If I had asked him to sidle up to journalists and whisper prejudiced information in their ears, he would have resigned on the spot.

I also employed as a political adviser David Hill, described by Charlie Whelan on Radio 5 recently as “the best spin-doctor of them all”. That was not his role in government. He was my link with the Labour Party. I suppose it was in those days that he developed his later penchant for putting the papers right. Perhaps he was the bridging passage between advising ministers and manipulating the news. But he deserved Whelan’s accolade because “he always played it straight”. If I had asked him to brief against another minister, he would not have resigned. He would just have told me not to be silly.

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I remember his horror at the story of Bernard Ingham telling lobby journalists that John Biffen, then leader of the House, was a “semi-detached” member of the government. In those innocent days, we objected to the personalisation as well as the politicisation of the civil service. Sir Bernard (as he now is) was essentially Margaret Thatcher’s man, too identified with his prime minister to be employable in Whitehall after she had gone. Sir Charles (now Lord) Powell became part of the same dangerous syndrome. At ten minutes past three on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, he would stand in the House of Commons corridor, across which Thatcher had to pass on her way to Prime Minister’s Questions, like a policeman on traffic duty. He took it as a matter of honour that no one should be allowed to impede her progress. So Richard Wilson might come to think about regulations governing the conduct of civil servants who go native.

By comparison, the rules on special advisers will be easily constructed. The first is the stern injunction that they should be recruited only from men and women who are capable of providing special advice of one type or another. Paul Corrigan at Health, Dan Corry at Transport and Garry Hart at the Lord Chancellor’s Office come into that category. But what talents did the briefly famous Jo Moore – once a Labour Party press officer – bring to Stephen Byers’s department? What does Bill Bush – a distinguished psephologist who once did his election sums for the BBC – tell Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, about ballet, the pre-Raphaelites or building stadiums? These people are employed to talk to newspapers. And since they work in ministries that have professional press officers, we can only assume they are expected to talk in a way that no permanent civil servant would think proper.

The notion that special advisers should be appointed after the usual civil service procedure of advertisement, application and interview is nonsense. Part of their role is to make their ministers feel comfortable in the occasionally alien environment of Whitehall. They must know them well enough to speak with a frankness that civil servants might find embarrassing, and to anticipate their inclinations with a confidence that helps the whole department avoid abortive initiatives. Very often, permanent officials find the secretary of state’s mind totally uncharted territory. A native guide can help them find their way through.

Nobody can seriously suggest that a special adviser should never have lunch with a lobby correspondent. The problems invariably arise when they are employed with the specific remit of squaring the press. It happened last Tuesday night. While Downing Street officials were saying that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister held identical views on the single currency, anti-euro special advisers were saying that the text of the two speeches might be similar but the tone was radically different. News bulletins reflected their prejudiced briefings. That is why more precise rules can never be the whole answer. If special advisers are to behave properly, ministers must first do the same.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party, 1983-92

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