Yes Minister, we work for the public interest

Posted by Richard D North under 'Power To The People!' / The Initiative Blizzard on 18 November 2008

There was a rather depressing discussion on the Today show. It followed publication of Liam Byrne’s mildly assertive¬†ministerial memo setting out how he liked his private office to be run. As usual, the Man In Whitehall was portrayed as a sly tyrant.

Too typically, Sir Antony Jay trotted out the old nonsense that the Civil Service doesn’t want results, it wants its own comfort. (You can easily listen again to the item, 18/11/08, 08.45 am.) Denis McShane, who, to put it politely, is always as polite as he possibly can be, said that Yes Minister (Jay’s famous show) was documentary and pure fact.

Jay presented his case that the Civil Service exists to subvert democratically elected politicians.

He said¬†ministers have to tell their ministries: “You’re not telling me what to do, I’m telling you what to do”, and they have to ask themselves, “Do you run the department or does the department run you?”

He went on to say that the Civil Service feel ministers come and go and it’s important to house train them. “The Civil Servant habit of thought is, ‘You don’t want ministers to achieve things, you want them to do what you want.’”

At times, he seemed to argue that the parties could be as bad as each other: “A lot of the time minsters and the Civil Service are in collusion, but sometimes in collision.” They he got back to the old mantra: When they did collide, he thought the minister must be right.

Denis McShane made a much more bluntly silly allegation: “The Civil Service represents the eternal interest of the British State and ministers operate, at least in theory, in the interest of the British people.” Perhaps aware that this was barmy stuff, he then said he admired the Civil Servants who had served him and are still there and care about the public interests. Obviously, he can’t have it both ways.

Of course, politicians and Civil Servants have different approaches and even different interests. The Civil Service may well be concerned to preserve the status quo.

What is forgotten, though, is that it is New Labour’s great failing that it wasted much of its tenure in dismantling the reforms which the Tories had introduced to public management. The Government then had to spend a lot of time reinstating those very reforms. To be honest, the Civil Service was rightly sceptical of the merit of New Labour’s behaviour in government, not least as the government subverted very valuable habits of government – such as having serious Cabinet meetings and a fairly coherent approach to policy.

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