Archive for November, 2009

Revenge of the Mandarins?

Last week, the latest Iraq inquiry had its first public evidence sessions (see:  I am not clear that we learnt anything that wasn’t widely believed before, but we are now hearing it from the mouths of the Madarinate.  But this puzzles me.  First, it is clear that the power of the civil service to question and obstruct (much caricatured in Yes Minister but also evident in numerous ministerial diaries, notably those of Tony Benn) is not what it once was.  But we knew this from previous inquiries.  The influence of Powell and Campbell in the preparation of the dossiers published in the run-up to war is testimony to this.  The politicising of intelligence is revealed fully in the Butler Inquiry.

But there is a second issue for me.  What were these same Mandarins doing in the run-up to war?  How did they raise their objections?  What did they do when they were ignored or overruled?  What are the duties of civil servants in such circumstances?  Should they have escalated the issues and concerns over evidence or legality?  Should they have resigned?  In an earlier blog, I suggested that the PM’s Official Spokesperson behaved in a manner that does not fit within any understanding of the role of the civil service (  It appears it is an endemic problem.

And today the trial starts in Germany of John Demjanjuk.  Does the “I was just following orders” defence still have purchase in that context as it appears to have in Whitehall?

Scientific Advice and the hunting of the QUANGO

The current storm in a teacup strikes me both as petty and the focus of undue attention.  Scientific advice is just that.  It is advice about the science of an issue – no more and no less.  It is only one sort of evidence to set alongside other sorts, which might include perceptions, political practicalities, administrative realities etc.  For any scientist to get upset that their advice was not swallowed whole is naive.  To expect to be able to offer advice as chair of a QUANGO while publicly criticising the government is even more so.

This morning, the story seems to have developed into a crisis – the scientific research community, so called, is going to withdraw its advice from government.  If ministers won’t listen to their advice, why give it?  If they are going to sack people they disagree with, why go for the job?  I wonder how this ‘threat’ (which amounts to very little since there is no such community) stacks up against recent calls for the cutting of public service waste and, specifically, the many QUANGOs in this country.  Suddenly, the very same opposition politicians and journalists seem all in favour of a QUANGO.  Suddenly, they see the value of independent expert advice!  Surely this is an opportunity to dismiss one such QUANGO?

How quickly the debate spins itself into knots.