SpAds and the Denigration of the Civil Service

by Sam Barrett 


With the potential for huge constitutional change at home on the horizon and the trials and tribulations going on all around the world, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the internal machinations of our government and the way Whitehall has increasingly conducted its operations. The procedures of government do not receive the discussion they deserve, but they are critically important.

Now, depending on the line of work you wish to pursue, the following may or may not be pleasant reading. If you wish to become a Special Adviser, (which I will call a SpAd), the power you will now possess and have accrued over the last 50 years is marked and substantial. If you wish to pursue a career in the Civil Service the following will prove to be pretty glum reading, however it is the reality of UK governance from the mid 20th to early 21st Centuries.

‘Political patronage’ is defined as ‘the custom observed by a political official of filling government positions with qualified employees of his or her own choosing’. It could be argued here that to put ‘qualified’ and ‘his or her own choosing’ in the same sentence might be slightly oxymoronic and, indeed, when deployed by officials and politicians who view public office as a means to making as much money as possible, the narrative that patronage can lead to ineffective, nepotistic and corrupt governments is given credence. Luckily, in Britain we have an illustrious heritage of relatively venerable government, but this was not always the case and the increased use of the SpAd over the Civil Service has begun to usher in an age that should perhaps be left behind.

I am not suggesting that SpAds are unqualified, far from it, only that they, by definition, do not possess the objectivity and impartiality of the Civil Service. This point will be elucidated on further later, but firstly I would like to address why this country desperately needed a Civil Service.

Before 1854, government officials were appointed not because they were the best people for the job, but because they knew those with political power. Nepotism and jobbery were time-honoured traditions that dictated government employment and thus gave power to the unqualified and the inert. However, this changed with the Gladstone-commissioned 1854 report from Sir Stafford Northcote and Charles Trevelyan. Their report found a direct correlation between political patronage and inefficient government. Patronage, according to their report, led to government bureaucracy being staffed by ‘the unambitious, the indolent or the incapable’. In order to solve this acute problem, they suggested that the appointment process of government staffers should be taken out of the hands of politicians and given to a politically independent organisation that would offer posts to individuals based solely on merit. Arise the Civil Service. Within a year, people were assessed on their propensity for objectivity and impartiality and those appointing them were politically neutral.

These reforms have characterised the British Civil Service for well over a century, but fast forward to 1997 and beyond and we can observe a systematic downgrading of the organisation by successive governments in favour of counsel from politically committed SpAds. The Northcote-Trevelyan reforms are not self-sustaining, and they are slowly being replaced with attitudes that gave rise to the mid-20th century American-style ‘Executive Orders’ which stipulated that only supporters of the government could be employed in positions involving policy advice.

There is no doubt that SpAds believe in government policy. Indeed, it was because of the Civil Service’s perceived ‘lack of enthusiasm’ for government policy that they were first introduced in 1964 by Harold Wilson. Their purpose then was to fast-track the implementation of a more Socialist agenda, rather than take the Civil Service’s lead on a more orthodox fiscal policy and adhere to a more accountable system of governance. Wilson’s SpAds, as they are now, were intelligent people, but there is no hiding the fact that they were and always have been employed because they are not impartial, not objective and have no interest in proper scrutiny. They are there in service to the incumbent government, not UK governance.

Not only has the number of SpAds grown markedly since Thatcher, but more worryingly so has their power to supersede and control Civil Servants. For example, Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell along with Alastair Campbell, two SpAds, were specifically given the power to command Civil Service officials by orders in Council. Paul Richards, SpAd to Hazel Blears, corroborated this when he spoke before the Lords Constitution Committee. Similarly, in 2002, the Public Administration Select Committee conducted an inquiry into Jo Moore, a SpAd at the Department for Transport, and found that she ‘took on a series of executive and in effect managerial tasks without reference to the proper procedures’. Furthermore, at the Treasury, Shriti Vadera, a SpAd for Gordon Brown, was famous for reducing junior Civil Servants to tears and in a similar instance, a Civil Servant who alleged that she was bullied and intimidated by SpAds at the Department for Education agreed to a settlement prior to the case reaching an industrial tribunal.

These are obviously extreme cases, but the general trend of an enlargement of SpAd influence at the expense of Civil Servants continues to grow. Nick Hillman, SpAd for the Coalition’s Universities and Science Minister David Willetts, stressed that when a Minister was absent SpAds ‘become the main point of call for clearing parliamentary questions, ministerial correspondence and comments for the press’. In other words, they instruct Civil Servants. Dominic Cummings, a former Gove SpAd, stated that most of his job was ‘converting long-term goals into reality via policy…and management to make sure people are doing what is needed to get there’. No prizes for guessing who these ‘people’ are!

The reality is that instead of objective scrutiny and policy advice, governments have become increasingly reliant upon ‘yes-people’ who are qualified and intelligent but are there to do a job for the incumbent government, not to make sure Whitehall is run effectively and impartially. My goal with this article is not to criticise SpAds themselves, but rather to suggest that they are the symptom of the decay of governmental tradition that has allowed the Civil Service to become almost obsolete. In typically British fashion, not much of this is known nor talked about, but I would suspect public apathy towards politics would grow even more if it was.

Find more of Sam’s articles here