Lord Smith, chief executive of the Environment Agency, is under attack, his career in danger of being washed away by ministers following an apparently inept response to Britain’s floods. Earlier this month, Baroness Morgan was unceremoniously sacked as chair of Ofsted.
While ostensibly different, these stories involving two leading Labour figures appointed to senior public posts have reawakened concerns about the politicisation of British government. But behind the shrill headlines about quangocrats and jobs for insiders lies a serious and urgent issue: the need to make our political system more transparent. Citizens are rightly demanding to know how government is run. If no answer is forthcoming, then trust in the system will be further eroded.
Suspicion that political expediency might be interfering with the machinery of state did not begin in the coalition era. The new Labour years saw an unprecedented increase in the number of political appointees, particularly special advisers – (full disclosure: I am a former “spad”) – who critics accuse of contaminating government with their partisan inclinations. Some insiders have complained that the tradition of civil servants “speaking truth to power” was undermined.
This grew worse with the escalation of political turf wars between the prime minister and chancellor in the Blair era. The Number 10 of Prime Minister Tony Blair relied increasingly on think- tanks; across the road Gordon Brown’s Treasury favoured independent panels chaired by well-known outsiders. Caught in between, the Whitehall mandarinate was marginalised.
With these innovations came risk. A politicised policy-making process lacked appropriate checks and balances, and may have led to weaker policy. For example, Mr Brown’s decision to abolish the 10p tax rate was taken against the advice of officials
The situation appears to have deteriorated further since 2010. Under the coalition the number of special advisers has increased: 85 today compared to 79 in the Labour years. Francis Maude, cabinet office minister, is giving secretaries of state powers to select their permanent secretaries. They will soon also be free to choose their own “cabinets” of political advisers and officials.
All governments want Whitehall to respond to their needs. It would be absurd to block every reform and preserve in aspic the Whitehall of 1945. There is nothing wrong with strengthening the quality of private office support available to ministers. Ensuring that officials are held to account makes sense in an age when government departments are highly complex organisations.
Margaret Thatcher tried to fashion a Whitehall machine that would modernise an ailing British economy, confronting “the enemies within”. Similarly, Mr Blair’s drive to overhaul the public sector left him complaining of “scars on my back”.
Both sought to operate outside the traditional Whitehall machine. But the consequence has been a creeping process of politicisation and centralisation with insufficient oversight. No party accepts the case for robust parliamentary regulation of public appointments – the power of patronage is too seductive. Mandarins have grown demoralised after years of constant sniping and interference. This all feeds mistrust of politicians and government, and may be a factor behind rising support for populist parties.
To address this enhanced transparency is essential. Senior appointments to the civil service and other public bodies ought to require parliamentary approval. There should be pre-appointment hearings for ministerial advisers and more stringent enforcement of the civil service code.
Without robust safeguards, the danger is that our institutions will be weakened. That is something the UK can ill-afford in an era in which government action will be needed to address pressing social challenges and defend the nation’s interests in an increasingly volatile world. It would further sap the vitality of British democracy.
The writer, a former special adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is the author of ‘Governing Britain: Power, Politics and the Prime Minister’
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