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Monday 11 April 2011

Beyond The Norm

There is a tendency for former politicians to look back on their time close to the centre of power and view events through a prism that is skewed sufficiently to suit their later arguments. One such is the former member for Chingford: in his Maily Telegraph blog, Norman Tebbit has decided that the Civil Service is no longer what it was, and that this is conveniently the fault of a party other than the Tories.

Norm’s evidence for the decline in the standard of Whitehall’s finest, sadly, is of the minimalist variety: apparently Tom McNally, deputy leader of the House of Lords, got a different piece of paper to that given earlier to Nick Clegg, and this, together with an assertion that Labour introduced quotas to the Civil Service, is supposed to clinch the argument.

Moreover, just in case his readers are showing insufficient backbone, Norm includes a photo of Tone being looked over by Big Al (and in an expensive looking plane), just to make sure we all read the nudge and wink correctly. This may satisfy the Telegraph audience, but the idea that Tony Blair appointing Alastair Campbell dealt some kind of mortal blow to the Civil Service is not one that stands any serious analysis.

Big Al was a political appointee: that is, he was given the job by Tone, and reported to him. That appointment, and the working relationship between the two, together with any interaction with Civil Servants, did not impinge on Whitehall recruitment, nor on the professional standards of the Civil Service. Blair and Campbell had better things to do than involve themselves in routine staff matters.

What did harm the reputation of the Civil Service, though, was the politicisation of career Civil Servants. And Tebbit knows full well that the best known example of this took place when he was at his closest to the centre of power.

Margaret Thatcher’s equivalent to Alastair Campbell was Bernard Ingham, the man who famously described John Biffen as “semi-detached” shortly before Biffen was dropped from the Cabinet in a reshuffle. Ingham was a career Civil Servant, and should therefore have been above party politics.

Yes, the behaviour of politicians has over the years influenced that of the Civil Service, but that influence has not been solely the preserve of one party, whatever use is made of selective memory in the retelling.

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