Of mandarins and ministers: Securing power, not just office

Fabian Society

Ed Miliband’s Labour government will take office in the toughest of circumstances: our public services on the rack because of cuts, a weak economy with hesitant growth based upon personal debt, housing assets and consumer spending, and with a record trade deficit. Despite the constant Tory mantra, ‘it’s the deficit, stupid!’, all their targets on borrowing, debt and the budget deficit have been missed. Their neoliberal austerity agenda is failing, like elsewhere in Europe. Labour will also face the small problem of ruling without a comfortable majority – or, if the pundits and pollsters are to be believed, no majority.

Labour’s first task will be to abandon the growth-choking austerity, as I have argued in my new book Back to the Future of Socialism, where I set out a coherent, evidence-based alternative, focusing initially on capital spending. But the key will be for incoming ministers to grip their briefs and departments in a way too many in government never do.

When I was appointed a minister by Tony Blair in May 1997, nobody had really taught me how to be one. Although during the 1997 election campaign I had read Gerald Kaufman’s instructive if somewhat satirical book How to be a Minister, I relied upon my own experience, instincts and political values.

Crucially important for an incoming minister is to have a plan; otherwise, the private office, diligent and supportive though I found all of mine in twelve years of government, quickly takes over and fills the diary, prompting busy hours of worthily processing papers and shuffling between meetings. Most important is to arrive on the first day with a sense of political priorities, even if the detail needs to be filled in. Otherwise even the most able ministers find themselves running to keep up, and sinking under piles of routine paperwork.

Many in our ministerial cadre, particularly though not exclusively below cabinet level, seemed more captured by their departments than not. However, Charles Clarke was a notable exception. In 2000, when we were both ministers of state, he in the Home Office, me in the Foreign Office, we had a meeting to discuss getting retired police officers to help with the transition from military peacekeeping to local civilian security, especially in African conflict zones. My officials had been frustrated by lack of co-operation from their Home Office counterparts and recommended a ministerial meeting to resolve the impasse.

Often on such occasions, a ministerial colleague would regurgitate their brief and the meeting would end, with officials happily going off to do what they love doing: reflect, write a fresh paper and prepare for another meeting. ‘Departmentalitis’ is rife within Whitehall, the Treasury by far the worst offender, so I was briefed up to persuade Charles of the merits of the proposal.

He arrived, plonked his burly frame on my office sofa, eyed up the grand old colonial surroundings, and politely interrupted my opening remarks: “Peter, I have looked at this carefully – and I completely agree with you.” His officials looked more startled than mine. “Now shall we tell them all to work out the details as quickly as they can, and let’s discuss some politics?” As the room emptied, we reflected upon what proved to be a common perspective on the shortcomings and successes of the Blair government and how to make it better. How refreshing it was to deal with Charles.

It is pointless being a minister unless you are prepared give political leadership. Although the legendary Yes Minister television series, where civil servants run rings around their hapless minister often comes uncomfortably close to the mark, my experience was rather different. Officials, I found, valued strong political leadership and direction – ministers who knew their own minds – provided they were willing to take advice. The best private secretaries ensured delivery of my ministerial decisions whilst keeping a wary eye for propriety and telling me things I might not want to hear. The best officials had a ‘can do’ rather than a ‘can’t do’ attitude and, if the civil service only adopted that motto as the norm it would be massively more efficient and immeasurably better at delivery.

Maintaining a grip on the ministerial brief involved striking a balance between the routine and the significant. My years in government suggested several lessons.

Around 80 per cent of the pile of papers and files in your in-tray or red box was straightforward and could in principle have been handled by the departmental machine. You needed to keep a weather eye on this bulk because it might contain elephant traps or plain mistakes. It might also contain what I called ‘piss-off’ messages to MPs, couched in turgid prose by drafting officials blissfully oblivious to their impact. You couldn’t simply sign off this material even if tired or late at night. However, for me, doing the job successfully meant focusing as clearly as possible on the 20 per cent where a difference really can be made. I also ‘did my red boxes overnight’, keeping on top of the workload, leaving more time to prioritise and focus on the politics.

Are we in office but not in power? That age old question for Labour governments will be worth every one of Ed’s new Labour ministers asking themselves every day.

Pat Finucane’s death is a terrible stain on Britain’s record in Northern Ireland

The Guardian, 12th December 2012

The De Silva report into the brutal murder of Pat Finucane, coupled with the prime minister’s searing confession to parliament, revealed probably the worst atrocity by the British state within UK jurisdiction in recent times.

Pat Finucane was a respected Belfast solicitor who had often represented republicans during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. On 12 February 1989, he was assassinated while eating Sunday lunch at home in front of his wife, who was wounded, and their three children.

His murderers were loyalist gunmen, one of whom, Ken Barrett, eventually pleaded guilty when put on trial in September 2004. However, this was not just another of the many grisly loyalist killings at the time. Special branch agents were directly involved and, with IRA terrorism widespread, encouraged loyalist terrorists to kill republicans. So did the army’s secret Northern Ireland intelligence agency, the force research unit (FRU), a team of army officers tasked to recruit and train double agents within the paramilitary organisations.

Pat Finucane had republican sympathies but he was a lawyer, not an activist, still less an IRA member. Yet, as De Silva confirms, the FRU and other state security officers obstructed the subsequent police murder investigation which would have exposed their complicity.

The Finucane family fought bravely for many years to get the truth out into the open and wanted a public inquiry. The Labour government pledged to hold one as part of the peace process. But when I was secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2007, the family would not accept one under the 2005 Inquiries Act – the only vehicle available – because evidence from the security forces could be given confidentially. Their position was entirely understandable – why should they trust the British state that had killed Pat?

But the reason for this restriction was to enable the security forces to provide key evidence without compromising sources or methods and therefore their ability to continue confronting terrorism. The impasse remained until more recently, when the family apparently indicated they would accept a 2005 act inquiry.

Nevertheless, De Silva has revealed that British government agents, supposedly acting in the name of democracy and the rule of law, totally betrayed those principles: a truly horrendous stain on Britain’s record in Northern Ireland. The prime minister should be held to his pledge that the attorney general will examine possible prosecutions and that other cabinet ministers will ensure that lessons are learned and nothing like this can ever happen again.


Hain Slams Government As Latest Unemployment Figures “Show No End To Misery In Sight”

Neath MP Peter Hain has condemned the Westminster Governments’ economic policy as ‘failing local people’ as latest unemployment figures show an increase. Despite UK unemployment figures falling unemployment in the Neath constituency has risen for the second month to 1589.

Commenting on the figures Mr Hain said, ‘There is no end to the misery in sight.  Unemployment figures are moving in the wrong direction and demonstrating the economic plan of this Tory led Government, supported by the Lib Dems, is failing drastically. With nearly eighty percent of the cuts still to come the situation is going to get much much worse.

‘Behind all the statistics there are real stories of families struggling to make ends meet or of a youngster desperately trying to get into the world of work and being told they don’t have the experience. Sadly a situation faced by too many of our youngsters who are left demoralised and frustrated as they suffer for the mistakes of the bankers and the inept policy of this Tory-Lib Dem government to invest in jobs and growth and get people back into work.”