Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Not Sir Humphrey

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 10, 2008

I’ve been thinking about my relatively brief (11 years seems relatively brief to me now) but interesting civil service career quite a lot recently.

The organisation I joined was the now defunct Central Computer Agency which was part of the also defunct Civil Service Department.  The CSD was the civil service’s civil service and it was uncannily like the fictional Ministry of Administrative Affairs presided over by the magnificent Sir Humphrey Appleby in the BBC TV series ‘Yes Minister’ which, together with its sequel ‘Yes Prime Minister’ was screened in the 1980s, starting 4 years before I resigned.

Here is Sir Humphrey, played by the late Nigel Hawthorne, in full flow.

The Civil Service Department was abolished one Friday lunchtime (I remember it was a Friday lunchtime because we’d been out to a pub and returned to hear the news) by Margaret Thatcher who had rather fallen out with our two Sir Humprheys (we had both a Permanent Secretary and a Second Permanent Secretary, so great was the load of administration of the government’s administrative machine which then, I believe, employed about half a million people) over pay.  She sacked (er, prematurely retired) both of them and merged us with the Treasury.  This was pretty much inevitable because a study carried out by two senior people from each department had, not long before, concluded that under no circumstances should the two be merged.

We duly moved out of the Old Admiralty Building – a very impressive esablishment which you can see here (the office I shared was in the top left hand corner and had a very pleasant view of the Mall, from the window of which which Mrs Mindworks and I had watched the parade associated with the wedding of Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981) to the even more impressive Treasury building (known then, at least, as GOGGS – Government Offices Great George Street) which you can see here, thus lengthening my bike ride from Kentish Town, where we were living at the time, by about half a mile.   My – again shared – office in GOGGS actually overlooked Whitehall (on the first floor, close to the second bus stop on the map) and had a very good view of St Stephen’s Tower – aka Big Ben.  If there had been any doubt in my mind up to that point that I was a Civil Servant, there certainly wasn’t with a view like that.

Shortly after we had unpacked our boxes we were summoned to a welcome party organised by my bosses’ boss.  He was also known by his initials: FERB but he’s better known today as Lord Butler (see this for a rather fetching photo and his full title) as he chaired the Butler inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war.  As you can see from the article, FERB had about as spectacular a civil service career as it’s possible to have.  The wikipedia article also points out that he was (and, as far as I know, still is) fanatical about sport.

He also had the brain the size of a planet.   One of my first tasks after the merger was to act as secretary, in effect, to two senior people who carried out a study of the now enlarged Treasury’s open structure (i.e. big cheeses).  This was a facinating exercise and at the end of it we met FERB in his office and delivered the report.  He read it then and there, reclining in his chair with his feet on his desk, making the odd comment and then handing it over and that was that.

Butler was a Mandarin of the old school.   Dedicated to public service, very much a member of the establishment (I think he was related to Rab Butler, who is mentioned in the wikipedia article) and very effective.  As the article points out, he worked directly for Margaret Thatcher twice and was working with her on night of  the Brighton bomb as she mentions in her memoirs.

I certainly didn’t vote for Mrs T – I was notionally a socialist back then: now I’m completely apolitical as I’ve pointed out here before.  But I, and other like-minded people I knew, thought that the changes she drove through in the civil service were necessary and beneficial.  Her view of senior civil servants like FERB was, I think, very different to that of Tony Blair’s.  She respected the views of the Mandarins and, apparently, enjoyed working with them.  Blair just saw them as an encumbrance and he and his New Labour colleagues brought in legions of political advisers and outsiders, including unprecedented numbers of management consultants,  to ‘get things done’.   Not a good thing, in my view, but if UK politicians want a politicised senior civil service – like that in the USA – they need to be open about it.  I have a nasty feeling that New Labour have attempted to introduce a massive change by stealth.  I’m not a political scientist and may well be wrong, but if I’m right I don’t think it’s good news.

On that note, here’s Sir Humphrey laying it on the line for Prime Minister Hacker:


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