Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

The state faces its greatest challenges since the war. The last thing we need is endless carping from No 10 about our excellent civil service

I led regeneration projects and know how to empower communities. It is deeply regrettable that the government seems so distracted from a true "levelling up" agenda
July 3, 2020

In some respects, the most depressing feature of the two dangers facing our country—Covid-19 and Brexit—is the persistent attempt from within Downing Street to heap most of the blame on the civil service.

As a minister for 17 years—13 in the cabinet—it has been my privilege to rely on civil servants. I then worked within or on the fringe of government as an adviser for another eight years. I could list a catalogue of decisions where I successfully encouraged civil servants in a direction they would not themselves have devised. I can remember only two occasions when I felt I was facing deliberate resistance: and in both cases I prevailed.

I defend absolutely what some see as their inertia or hesitancy. It is a complete misunderstanding of the constitutional role of the service to see it in the role of initiator or innovator. That is the role of ministers. If you are looking for collective failure for Britain’s lacklustre post-war economic performance, look no further than the absence of any consistent industrial and economic strategy, as left-wing governments and ministers swapped desks with right-wing equivalents and sought to reverse each others’ policies. Even within this electoral change government reshuffles injected yet more uncertainty. Even within the same party, ministers were replaced by colleagues with quite different attitudes towards individual policies.

This is before you ask difficult questions about the managerial experience of individual ministers, their willingness to provoke controversy, or their ambition to climb the ladder of the party hierarchy. I have no hesitation in affirming my long-held view that our civil service is a Rolls-Royce organisation. It needs fuel and a driver but that must be provided by ministers. Just imagine the howls of the British press if civil servants were constantly proposing policies perceived to be biased towards those of the parliamentary opposition!

After months in which No 10 briefings have focused on the “blob” culture, a “Remainer” instinct and alleged incompetence, culminating in effective dismissal of the cabinet secretary, we were encouraged to await a definitive speech by Boris Johnson in Dudley on 30th June.

If ever a speech was reflective of Whitehall at its most typical, this was it. The speech was a replica of those delivered in times of threatened unemployment by governments of both persuasions over the decades. Parcels of public borrowing became tied up in the ribbons of the sponsoring departments, which were designed by officials in London to cope with their perception of local problems. Of course, much of the money is properly targeted towards outstanding repairs in schools and hospitals. The scale of these repairs would have been better avoided in the first place. It cannot seriously be claimed that this announcement adds up to a coherent response to the immensity of the Covid-19 and Brexit crises.

In the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s government, I flew over the dereliction of east London, walked the streets of riot-torn Liverpool and saw problems which demanded solutions. I understood all too clearly what was wrong. There was ineffective local leadership, the public and private sector were at each others’ throats, there was no local agency with the power to achieve results. The result perforce was that London made the decisions.

Forty years later we should have learnt from experience. Above all, the existence of elected mayors in most of our great city conurbations has established a local power structure representative of both political parties. It is the closest we have in England to the devolved power in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to the mayoral model adopted virtually everywhere in the advanced world.

The structure of each of these conurbations is different, with strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats reflective of local circumstances. The mayoral structure establishes leadership that not only understands these individual characteristics but has the authority to draw together in partnership the people who live there, who have the relevant knowledge and skill to exploit or confront them. There is no structure in central government that reflects the unity of these local powerhouses, to coordinate their initiatives and proposals with the separate agendas of a dozen or more government departments.

In the prime minister’s speech, there was no attempt to fulfil his manifesto commitment to level up the mayoral powers nor to give the private sector a meaningful role in the battle to fight our way through our twin challenges, or to embrace a local hunger “to get devolution done.”

The first critical step that is needed is the appointment of a senior minister—probably Michael Gove—to coordinate Whitehall’s spending power into a single pot. George Osborne did it, but after he left, the spending departments resisted and have now got “their money” back.

Each mayor should fulfil his/her remit to submit their industrial strategy after careful coordination with academia and the public and private sectors outlining how the available public money could best strengthen and revitalise their local economies. They should quantify the investment the private sector would add in support of the public investment.  The quality of education and the relevance of training should, in the first instance, be locally determined. The available money should be subject to competitive bidding between the authorities to drive up standards.

Of my many memories of the Second World War high on the list was the frequently asked question “don’t you know there is a war on?” Churchill never failed to remind us.

He also mobilised every resource the nation possessed. I have a wonderful poster of him in the darkest days of the early 1940s. “Let us go forward together” is the Churchillian message of unity.

It is no exaggeration to claim that the combined threats of Covid-19 and Brexit pose the most serious danger to our economy since then. How very different is the present response. The prime minister appears to be listening, above all, to one voice in the heart of Downing Street, endlessly carping about the incompetence of the civil service, the very people upon whom the government relies to implement their top-down policies. The elected mayors of our great cities are marginalised or ignored. These are the people who have the clearest understanding of the local opportunities that exist and the most acute problems we face. No fragmented departmental Whitehall culture can equal their local knowledge and loyalty.

I can think of no time in my experience when the threat is so evident and the response so inadequate.