April 1, 2011 5:21 pm

Sir Humphrey’s caste still rules the roost

‘The Secret World of Whitehall’ shows a world run by men educated at public school and Oxford

In last week’s Armstrong & Miller Show (Saturday BBC1), Miller did a brief solo sketch in the character of a happy-go-lucky loser: business lost, minicab torched. One day, his wife showed him an advert for a teaching career. “You have to be joking!” But after six months in carpet slippers he thought: what the hell? – and applied to last_resort.gov.uk.

Like much A&M comedy, it was a nicely spotted inversion expressing a truth: teachers had been part of a hierarchy and could count on respect, even awe. Now they struggle to hold their authority and professional standing, especially in areas where teenage pupils with little restraint, few manners and no fear are intent on reducing them to impotence.

Adult authority over children, once assumed, is now deeply contested. In Care Home Kid (BBC2 Monday) the actor Neil Morrissey went on the personal journey increasingly incumbent on celebrities of a certain age (48). This one was worth taking. He revisited an adolescence in a children’s home, where he was placed after going on a burglary spree. His parents, psychiatric nurses, were judged unfit to raise him and his brother (who was placed in a separate home). It was an affecting and plainly told story: it underscored why today’s reflex, in liberal societies, is to suspect the adult and side with the child. The stories told to him by those he contacted were of sexual abuse – what a hidden continent of that is now being revealed! – and cruel punishment such as being made to sit in an icy bath.

Authority in Britain had, through the 20th century, the top civil service, “permanent government”, at its pinnacle. Examination of government in varying forms has been the life’s work of the documentary maker Michael Cockerell, one of the cadre of canny chroniclers that has made British television the premier heuristic instrument for educating us about ourselves and the world. His three-parter on The Secret World of Whitehall (BBC4 Thursday) shows a world run, even now, largely by men typically educated at public school and Oxford (Cambridge sometimes), who pass into the Treasury, then out to other departments of Whitehall to command and control.

In the interviews Cockerell did, or unearthed, with the private secretaries and permanent secretaries and inhabitants of the Cabinet Office, he showed men who had the aspect of members of a caste and a sense of entitlement. All had the “posh” English accent associated with refinement and leadership – an accent that those who aspired to lead (whether Scots, Welsh, Irish or from Yorkshire) took pains to acquire.

These were men who – from the first permanent secretary, Maurice Hankey, appointed by the class upstart David Lloyd George in 1917 when the fogs of war required centralised government – appeared to have deference to elected politicians as part of their acquired reflexes, together with detachment and high intelligence. This went to the extreme of Norman Brook (a rare grammar school boy, but Oxford) who, as cabinet secretary during the Suez crisis, acceded to the demand of the then prime minister Anthony Eden to burn key papers – even though he put a note in the file saying he had done so.

The Yes Minister figure of permanent secretary Sir Humphrey was much invoked, but it was made clear that a prime minister who wished to take them on would win: Tony Blair had three, of whom two – Robin Wilson and Andrew Turnbull – had all too short a stay. The present cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, was educated at a Catholic comprehensive school and the University of Warwick: a radical break on all fronts. His successor, however, is more likely to revert to public school and Oxbridge: that grip has not loosened, even if the deference paid to it has.

Kirsty Young’s four-parter, The British at Work (BBC2 Thursdays) was a rare effort to make work viewable and interesting, and at times succeeded. Young was good on past hierarchies, where men (nearly always) who spoke like cabinet secretaries exercised power by right rather than talent; good on the public pride working men (usually) took in their craft; good, especially, on the place women were granted in work, and on their steadily growing power in the period she covered, the nearly seven decades since the war.

But Young intruded herself too much, her claiming of a working-class past unseemly in a media millionaire so expensively dressed. More extraordinarily, the programme missed the jolt that Japanese success in process engineering gave to the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, from which the latter benefited. It missed the central moment of the state-labour confrontation when, in 1984-85, the mine workers were beaten, marking the end of organised labour’s weapon of government destruction. And it missed, almost entirely, the largest element in the way we now work – the globalisation of manufacturing, finance and services, and the unforgiving competition exerted by the enriching masses of China and India, Brazil and eastern Europe, forcing those of us who wish to live the full life to live the full-of-work life.

A creditably comic poke at work is White Van Man (BBC3 Tuesdays), which is modest, finely cast and written with enough verve to sustain the comedy of men and women surfing over, or going under, what Young called the Age of Uncertainty.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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