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If Yes Minister were made now, it would surely include some scenes set in a lightly disguised version of the Institute for Government. No territory is more favourable to the Sir Humphreys of the present day as they contest, with the utmost friendliness, the deadly serious question of who is to get which job.
Consider this passage in a recent IfG publication:
“An appointment as important and high-profile as this one should not rest on the judgement of ministers alone, without any opportunity for scrutiny. Instead, the position should be regulated, either by the Commissioner for Public Appointments if it remains a direct ministerial appointment, or preferably by the First Civil Service Commissioner.”
The IfG had been stirred on this occasion by reports in the press that Boris Johnson, at that point still Prime Minister, intended to make Lord Hogan-Howe the next head of the National Crime Agency.
Whenever a question like this arises, the IfG argues for a reduction in the power of politicians and an increase in the power of regulators, often drawn from the ranks of the Civil Service.
When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, Dr Hannah White, Director of the IfG, declared that “if he really wants his assertion that he will lead a government of integrity to be convincing” he must strengthen the powers of the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, giving that individual
“the power to launch investigations when they see fit, rather than with the PM’s approval, and to publish their findings on their own initiative.”
The IfG has long taken that line, which it regards as more “ethical” and “transparent”. In her recent book, Held in Contempt: What’s Wrong with the House of Commons, reviewed here last April, Dr White lamented that the Commons is “Side-lined, Unrepresentative, Arcane, Exceptionalist and Decaying”, and referred to “the UK’s infamous ‘unwritten’ constitution”.
Yet since that book came out, two Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, have been sacked after losing the confidence of MPs, who were in turn rattled by the collapse in public support.
That sanction is more democratic and ferocious than anything dreamt of in the philosophy of the IfG, or “Bloberama Central” as one leading Tory described it to ConHome.
This Tory complained that overmighty mandarins, and former mandarins, are increasingly inclined, and indeed believe themselves to have every right, to take or at least to precipitate decisions which are properly the responsibility of politicians.
He instanced Lord McDonald (who as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office greeted the new Foreign Secretary, one Boris Johnson, in 2016), striking with deadly effect on the morning of Tuesday 5th July 2022, when he published on Twitter his letter of complaint about Johnson to Lord Evans (once the Director-General of MI5, now Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life), and followed that up by being interviewed in the prime 8.10 slot on the Today programme.
Lord Evans had on Thursday 4th November 2021 delivered a stern speech at the IfG’s Ethical Standards in Government One-Day Conference, during which he began by commenting on the vote the day before in the Commons on the Owen Paterson affair:
“In my view yesterday’s vote on the Report of the Commons Standards Committee was a very serious and damaging moment for Parliament and for public standards in this country.
“It cannot be right that MPs should reject after one short debate the conclusions of the Independent Commissioner for Standards and the House of Commons Committee on Standards, conclusions that arose from an investigation lasting two years.
“It cannot be right to propose an overhaul of the entire regulatory system in order to postpone or prevent sanctions in a very serious case of paid lobbying by an MP.”
But the Commons had already concluded, without any need for Lord Evans’ advice, that this would not do, and the Government that morning backed down.
So we see the rather confusing operation in tandem of two different systems: the Commons, regulating itself as it always has done, by debates conducted in the knowledge of public opinion mediated between elections by a free and boisterous press; and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, set up in 1994 by the then Prime Minister, John Major, in a desperate attempt to cope with accusations of “Tory sleaze” by pretending to an implausible moral perfection, and operating in the opaque and unaccountable world of the quangocrats, in which obeisance is paid to every modish notion of diversity and transparency, but legitimacy springs from upholding the received ideas of the official class and nothing so vulgar as an election is ever held.
The IfG is yet more recent: it was set up in 2008 “to make UK government more effective through rigorous research, open discussion and fresh thinking”.
Many think tanks have to spend their time raising money. The IfG is funded in an altogether more handsome way: David Sainsbury launched it with £15 million from one of his charitable trusts, and still chairs the board.
It is housed in a handsome, stuccoed building in Carlton Gardens, just off the Mall, above the statues of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
A seasoned Whitehall watcher told ConHome:
“I’m pretty impressed with them. Like the Resolution Foundation, having that core funding gives you a different scope.
“You don’t have to grub around for commercial sponsorship. You have huge flexibility to put people where they are needed.”
This individual named an unfashionable but important area of public policy where he had received authoritative briefing from experts employed by the IfG, which is not, like some think tanks, “a school for special advisers”, but takes a longer-term view.
He added that the IfG is good on questions such as “how to run a public inquiry and not make it a complete waste of time”.
A second Whitehall figure was less enthusiastic:
“The IFG has so much going for it: well resourced, a great building (five minutes from Whitehall) and lack of competition. But its output, which is anchored in the Blairite consensus of 20 years ago, has tended to disappoint. Less the Kennedy School of Government; more a retread of the old Civil Service College.”
The Civil Service College, founded in 1970, changed its name to the National School of Government, and closed in 2012.
One may note, in British politics, recurrent attempts to instil a more professional approach. The Institute of Public Administration, founded in 1922, closed in 1992.
The Conservative Research Department, founded by Neville Chamberlain in 1929, enjoyed its greatest days as a nursery of talent from 1945 under the leadership of Rab Butler, and more recently gave David Cameron, George Osborne, Oliver Letwin, Ed Llewellyn and many others their apprenticeship in politics.
On Monday of this week, the IfG held a discussion on “What you need to know to work in government”, addressed by David Gauke, Philip Rycroft, Salma Shah and the IfG’s Associate Director, Tim Durrant.
Rycroft, a former permanent secretary, observed that ministers who have “political confidence” tend to be better, for they are more decisive.
He also suggested, with pleasant diffidence, that Whitehall ought in the offices of senior ministers to adopt the French cabinet system.
In 1983, when I had just returned from France and was interviewed by Peter Cropper, the acute but diffident Director of the Conservative Research Department, he asked me whether I thought we should adopt the French cabinet system, a question on which I could shed no light.
Intelligent people have for many years been trying to modernise the British system of government. Occasionally they have possessed the touch of madness which is needed to make an impact: one thinks of Alfred Sherman at the Centre for Policy Studies in the late 1970s, and of Dominic Cummings at Vote Leave.
But what any think tank really needs is a market for its output: politicians who are yearning to put its proposals into effect.
The IfG proposes, with disconcerting sincerity, to raise not only the efficiency but the moral tone of British politics. Here are two worthy aims, but the first is rather diffuse, while the second risks making democratically accountable politicians subordinate to officials who cannot be sacked.