Thursday 12 December 2019

Blair quickly learnt that, in civil service, less is more

The coalition could learn from Blair's streamlined approach to policymaking, writes John-Paul McCarthy

As the Irish Government continues on its financial via dolorosa, the economic argument in Britain continues to offer many important insights for would-be Irish reformers.

There was an electrifying intervention in the British debate last week as Jonathan Powell -- Tony Blair's former chief of staff and chief negotiator in Northern Ireland -- squared off against the former UK cabinet secretary Robin Butler on BBC's Newsnight.

Powell was promoting his new book on Machiavellian politics while commenting on the public service culture during the New Labour years, but even though he might have been trying to sell a few more copies of his book, he landed more than one palpable hit on the somewhat sleepy Butler.

Powell argued that the British mandarins were either at Blair's feet or his throat during his 10-year premiership. He mocked Butler's dramatic attempt to intimidate the new boy in 1997 with a grave presentation about Britain's nuclear weapons, suggesting that this was a not so subtle strategy to capitalise on the fact that Blair was the first British prime minister since Ramsay MacDonald to ascend to the premiership without any previous ministerial experience whatsoever.

Powell implied that this tactic failed to faze Blair, and then Butler et al switched tactics and assured the new PM that they stood ready and waiting to turn the vague New Labour manifesto into so many shiny new statutes that would fly through the Commons.

Powell was also fairly unapologetic about what many came to regard as his imperious, even bullying, style while chief of staff in Downing Street. (Even Peter Mandelson complained about his heavy-handed treatment of Blair in his memoir, The Third Man, gently deriding Powell for terrorising Blair with a long checklist every morning).

Powell has defended Blair's preferred style of government, the so-called "denocracy", which capitalised on CR Attlee's famous statement in retirement to the effect that British cabinet government only works "if you can stop people talking". For Powell, the machine only works when someone mercilessly stokes the furnaces night and day.

Powell's peculiar position within the British administrative hierarchy between 1997-2007 might be profitably pondered by an Irish Government groaning under a crushing public service pay and pensions bill.

Powell shows that less can actually be more, and that one man can do the work of 10 others, if he's placed adroitly.

Though he retained the traditional foreign affairs private secretary position in Downing Street after 1997, Blair streamlined the position rather ruthlessly and put Powell in overall charge.

This had dramatic effects on Northern Ireland policy. Up to 1997, Northern Ireland policy was handled by a butcher's dozen of officials in Whitehall and Belfast. If you were lucky, coordination came from the cabinet secretary and more immediately from the foreign and defence private secretaries in Downing Street.

Blair disliked the Byzantine complexity of this and chose to centralise policy around Powell while ruthlessly cutting the Ministry of Defence out of the picture. (Their new impotence became clear on the day he formally apologised to those who were wrongfully convicted of terrorist charges in the Seventies and when he established a tribunal to inquire into the killing of 13 civilians in Derry in 1972, decisions which they had never really favoured.)

Not the least of the virtues of Powell was that he got a lot more work done for Blair by cutting out the duplication of labours that had characterised previous ministries.

Bernard Donoghue's two volumes of memoirs of his service under Wilson and Callaghan give a vivid insight into the problems Powell tried to avoid. Donoghue recounts the fraught few weeks in 1975 after Wilson asked the civil service to draw up plans for phased UK withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

These discussions involved Donoghue, as well as experts from the Cabinet Office, the MoD, the Foreign Office and of course the Northern Ireland Office. Wilson's plans came to naught as a result of administrative infighting as much as his own lack of interest.

The Irish civil service may pride itself on its sleek effectiveness on Northern Ireland policy and on EU budgetary affairs, but we have not been immune from this kind of elephantine expansion.

As ever, Charles Haughey's ghost shakes his gory locks at us here. During his first term as Taoiseach, he wanted an office with a staff to match those he had been used to at finance and in health.

His first decision was to split the cabinet secretary's job in two, thereby giving himself effectively two full-time permanent secretaries in the form of Noel Whelan and Dermot Nally.

He also had a full-time private secretary and de facto chief of staff in the form of Padraig O hAnnrachain, a refugee from de Valera's era.

This was much too large a staff for an Irish prime minister, and it fell to Bertie Ahern in the late 1990s to restore the cabinet secretary's role as ex-officio head of the Department of the Taoiseach when he appointed Dermot McCarthy to both roles.

One wonders how much of this Haughey-style administrative proliferation is still going on in the private offices of our various cabinet ministers.

There may well be millions to be saved here in salaries and pensions by following the lead of Powell and Ahern, and demanding that senior civil servants simply work harder.

John-Paul McCarthy is researching Gladstone and Ireland at Exeter College, Oxford

Sunday Independent

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