UK Politics

Should the UK abandon an independent civil service?

In January 2009 Barack Obama will become President of the United States. In the UK the civil service provides continuity from one administration to the next; this is not the case in the US where Obama will be installing his own civil service. The manner is which the transition occurs is quite startling, as well as fascinating, when viewed from a British perspective. Obama’s transition teams have been extremely active, and have had more co-operation than is usual from the outgoing Bush administration:

Wearing yellow badges and traveling in groups of 10 or more, agency review teams for President-elect Barack Obama have swarmed into dozens of government offices, from the Pentagon to the National Council on Disability.

With pointed questions and clear ground rules, they are dissecting agency initiatives, poring over budgets and unearthing documents that may prove crucial as a new Democratic president assumes control. Their job is to minimize the natural tension between incoming and outgoing administrations, but their work also is creating anxiety among some Bush administration officials as the teams rigorously examine programs and policies.

Are we moving towards this system in the UK? It now appears that the Conservatives may have had a “transition team” pouring over the policies and programs of the current Labour administration based in the Home Office. One item of interest appears to have been the Flanagan report. Here’s an extract from Ministry of Truth’s dissection of the Damian Green affair.

The possibility that information relating to upcoming Home Office policy announcements may not only have been leaked but have actually found its way into Tory policy announcements that have pre-empted the government’s own proposals by a matter of a few days has been one of the underlying subtexts of this case, indeed its believed to be one of reasons why the police were called in to investigate in the first place – and here we have an example of a policy where, in the absence of any evidence of an underlying policy development process that might reasonably have led Davis and his shadow team to the same conclusions as Flanagan.

There is, at the very least, a legitimate interest in asking the Conservative Party to clarify just exactly where and this policy came from and to seek clarification as to whether the Flanagan report was one of the documents that Galley passed on to Green and, if so, when did this leak actually occur, even if it is, perhaps, far too much to expect a full confession if the Galley/Green connection was, indeed the source of this policy idea, which David Davis not only claimed as his own but used as means of taunting the government over delays in the publication of Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s report on the future of policing.

Irrespective of the view one takes of the legitimacy, or otherwise, of those leaks that have already been confirmed as having taken place, there is no reasonable sense in which the unauthorised appropriation of government policy ideas and proposals and their incorporation in Conservative policy announcements could reasonable consider to be be either a matter of holding the government to account or to be a normal part of the job of an MP.

If it is now to be part of British politics to ensure that your party has spy rings in government supplying information on a regular basis to provide an electoral advantage, rather than a pure public interest as was the case wtih Derek Pasquill, then the logical conclusion is that the idea of an impartial civil service is slipping away – under cover of moronic cries of Stalinism.

How would Conservatives feel about a Labour opposition co-ordinating informants in the civil service when they are in power?

In the future will the only way a UK government can ensure its business is conducted properly be by stacking the civil service full of party loyalists? At a change of government the incoming administration will then re-make the civil service in the vision of the incoming administration.

This is regrettable; there are distinct advantages in having a non-partisan civil service. It is a shame that some of the opposition see the need to damage this model for short-term political advantage.