‘Stalinist’ Brown

An amusing report of an interview with Lord Turnbull in today’s Financial Times (20th March, 2007). Lord Turnbull was the top civil servant at the Treasury under Gordon Brown before becoming the Cabinet Secretary to Tony Blair. So he knows something of Whitehall. But what is amusing about the story is that it appears to be a lot of noise about nothing. Brown is made out to be power obsessed and paranoid. He wants to have influence in all areas of policy. He doesn’t trust political colleagues or, for that matter, the civil service. And he doesn’t want to be associated with any failings or difficult decisions.

So what is new? Since when has the Treasury ever been shy about contributing to a political decision? While I had very little direct contact with them, the Treasury influenced the thinking and decisions making in Whitehall through indirect and direct means when I was there. And as for distrust, there is a long and honourable tradition, perhaps particularly amongst Labour ministers, of distrusting the civil service and/or colleagues. Tony Benn, in his diaries, was for ever commenting on the efforts of the civil service to frustrate him. Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister depict a civil service bent on getting its own way. And how many politicians form an orderly line to take the blame for errors made or for difficult choices?

Or maybe theWhitehall village of ministers and officials, or former ministers and former officials, are having their say in the Labour leadership contest? Another story about Brown’s character and style days before his last budget. Coincidence?

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2 Responses to “‘Stalinist’ Brown”


  1. 1 Kevin Jones March 21, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Yes, “so what’s new”” But we can also ask “so what?”

    Beyond the obvious political machinations at work (are the public so naive, and so short of real meaningful political issues in their everyday lives to care?), the relationship between politicians and policy makers is a murky area of governance that could beneft from a great deal more opacity.

    Study any introductory text on British Government and you may go away thinking that the relationship between politics and policy is fairly straightforward and linear. The politicians give the policy makers direction and the policy makers have to get on with it. Don’t they? Watch too much “Yes Minister” and you will become deeply cynical and may well form the opposite belief that Ministers are simply the stooges of Senior civil servants.

    Of course, neither perspective is wholly accurate, or indeed inaccurate. Politics and policy making meet every day in the actions of everyday governance. Minsiters sometimes lead, often they learn from policy makers and follow their advice, and sometimes they fight about and negotiate which way to develop a policy area.

    Ministers can’t have their finger in every pie. No matter how much of a control freak Brown may, or may not be, there are just too many pies. Ministers shouldn’t be making policy, they should give policy direction. However, we do elect ministers to at least try to keep an eye on what the bakers are up to, and to prod them in directions they don’t want to go. The alternative is to have a public service divorced from politics – a government of bureaucratic plutocrats if you will.

    So let them fight it out. It’s part of processes of good governance to have contestation and challenge between politics and policy. Sir Humphrey’s… I mean Lord Turnball’s interview with the FT reveals this process in part. But instead of worrying about whether Gordon is a control freak or not, and whether we want such a freak for Prime Minister, would the polity not be better served by some insight into the conflicts and important policy negotiations being made within the Treasury Office?

  2. 2 Mike Rowe March 22, 2007 at 10:52 am

    Of course, it is too easy to be seduced by neat models of the policy world or by comical representations of it. And there have been some interesting studies of the workings of Whitehall that do shed light on the subject. Among these are Heclo and Wildavsky’s ‘The Private Government of Public Money’, Peter Hennessy’s works, notably ‘Whitehall’, and David Lipsey’s ‘The Secret Treasury’. There are also the ministerial diaries – perhaps most famously by Crossman and Benn.

    But if we want to open up Whitehall to scrutiny, do we need to talk about a more robust Freedom of Information Act and a real change in culture?


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