Goodbye, Sir Humphrey?

The Cabinet Office is commissioning research to look at the way ministers, senior civil servants and political appointees function in other countries (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/looking-abroad-next-steps-civil-service-reform-programme).  The list includes countries that replace the senior ranks with every change of elected leadership.  This is already being interpreted as a threat to civil service neutrality and a victory for Steve Hilton who had been arguing for dramatic reductions in Whitehall before peddling off into the sunset.

But there is a serious point to be discussed.  For years, there have been complaints about the politicisation of the civil service.  Tony Benn and other Labour ministers in the 60s and 70s had the impression that civil servants were a conservative force at best, and a Conservative one on some occasions.  To get to the top under Thatcher, you needed to be ‘one of us’ or to be a can-do official.  Being cautious, balanced and neutral doesn’t win you friends amongst current ministers.  So, why not make the top ranks explicitly political appointments, as in the US and France?

The argument is that a neutral civil service has a particular value. But what is that?  Are we really saying that civil servants are objective, unbiased and impartial in some way?  Are they really so superhuman that they can dismiss from their minds anything other than the national interest or some other higher purpose?  Or should we be just a little more honest?  Ed Miliband’s dad, Ralph, was very clear that the upper reaches of the civil service was not the neutral force it claims – a recent rereading of ‘The State in Capitalist Society’ was very instructive.

And, if they are indeed so neutral and acting in pursuit of some lofty purpose, why are they so anxious that their advice is not open to us to read?  Why should they want to keep so much of their work exempt under the Freedom of Information Act?  Is their lobbying for secrecy not self-interested and indicative of their inability to be as neutral as they claim?

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