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Simon Jenkins on Sir Humphrey

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 22, 2009

sir humphreyHere is Simon Jenkins suggesting in today’s Guardian that one explanation for the  UK government’s current impersonation of a mammoth sinking into a tar pit is that ministers no longer take advice, at least on matters political, from permanent secretaries.  Instead political advisers rule the roost leaving senior civil servants to manage and administrate.

‘Blair, like Thatcher over the poll tax, replaced Whitehall’s “scepticism first, loyalty afterwards” with loyalty first and then chaos. Brown as chancellor, who rarely consulted even his Treasury officials, endured one fiasco after another, as on tax credits and rail privatisation. At No 10 he conveys the image of a prime minister alone in his office, attended by a small and devoted cabal, unable to handle contradictory advice or exercise judgment based on it. A lost victim of circumstance, he seems to have no traction on the machinery of government.’

Jenkins predicts that Sir Humphrey will return.  I’m not so sure: the Oxbridge classicists who once dominated the ranks of  the senior civil service (Sir Humphrey was undoubtedly one himself) are no longer so sniffy about ‘commerce’ and are happy to head off to the private sector.  Once a tradition has been broken, it’s broken.

I mentioned my encounter with a real Sir Humphrey here, incidentally.


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