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Karen Bartlett column.

Byline: By Karen Bartlett

Only last week the newspapers were reporting that the English gentleman was dead, the monopoly of private schools, Oxbridge and the Church broken, and even the English "defeated in their own country" according to one commentator.

The question was asked, "Who runs Britain?" The answer seemed unclear, but it appeared to be a combination of New Labour, new media and greedy industrialists. A multi racial blend tinted green by their love of the colour of money.

This week, though, all retired colonels in Bognor Regis can happily nod off in front of their copies of The Daily Telegraph, reassured that the same people are running the country as ever were. The civil service.

A minister has gone, Beverley Hughes done down by officials in her own department, and an endless series of leaks giving the impression of a Home Office listing in a state of unmanageable, uncontrollable, confusion.

Since Labour came to power we have become more used to headlines emphasising the court of King Tony out to slay Britain's "greatest governing gift," Sir Humphrey and the impartial civil service.

An ever growing number of politically appointed special advisers, making decisions and, dare we even say it, demanding results.

The Times reported two years ago that these advisers had "blown asunder" traditional civil service hierarchies "like the SAS" and esteemed academics, pressure groups and even enlightened politicians claimed that we needed a new Civil Service Act to protect whatever shreds of integrity and neutrality were left. Events this past week, however, have pointed to a different story. Rather than the image of a battalion of bowler-hatted Mandarins left shell shocked by government reforms and crying in the corner, we see the civil service doing what it has always done best - resisting change, and thwarting the will of its elected masters at every step of the way. Margaret Thatcher, who was to the civil service what Gengis Khan was to Mongolia, once said: "Advisers advise, ministers decide." Traditionally speaking, top civil servants not only advise on policy, but also whisper the right words in their minister's ear, and protect them as best they can from mistakes in parliament and the press.

None of this seems to have come the way of Beverley Hughes. Without some of the mysterious magic sprinkled by the civil service like a protective cloak over British public life, Beverley Hughes was left to twist in the wind.

There is something inherently odd about the civil service. There they sit, glorifying in their independence, but what makes a top man, or the rare woman in their ranks, tick? Putting cynicism aside, politicians are usually people who want to solve difficult problems. Career civil servants are, by contrast, people who are quite happy until election day to put into practice those policies that often make very difficult problems worse.

While elected governments bear the ultimate in responsibility, with less actual power than they might have imagined, the civil service is the epitome of power with no responsibility.

It's true that the numbers of special advisers appointed by the government are greater than ever before, but numbering less than 100 they still seem fairly puny compared to the vast juggernaut of a civil service employing hundreds of thousands. And who has been behind the stories about anxieties over the role of special advisers? Surely not, as some would suggest, civil servants themselves?

In many ways it is not easy to be a top civil servant. Your work is always subject to the personal whims of ministers, projects are started but never finished due to cabinet reshuffles, and an almost unimaginable dexterity is needed to translate the dreamiest of ideas into some kind of practical reality. Now the Blair government has shifted the emphasis off advising on policy to the harder demand of delivery. It must be exasperating to be constantly setting targets for things which you know can never be measured that way, and it must be all too tempting to operate a "go-slow" on some instructions in the hope that your minister will be moved elsewhere. The civil service is nothing if not incredibly adept at appearing to embrace radical reform while changing nothing. In its slow, cumbersome, but devastatingly effective way, this week it's the civil service 1, government nil. "We'll get to the bottom of it," said the Prime Minister in his press conference. Not if Sir Humphrey can help it.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 6, 2004
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