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?