The Coincidence of Novembers

By Edited by Sandy Nairne

A selection of autobiographical writings by Sir Patrick Nairne (1921 – 2013)

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Reflections on the Civil Service and Europe

Dear Coincidence Supporters - For many years I have had on my mantelpiece a yellowing newspaper cutting: an undated diary piece, probably from The Times, from the 1980s. It reads:

But habits of secrecy die hard. When Sir Patrick Nairne, who is a distinguished ex-Permanent Secretary and the head of an Oxford College to boot, recommended a Freedom of Information Act on TV, I heard one senior civil servant talking about him as if he had started wearing a grass skirt and seeing UFOs. Ralf Dahrendorf knew what he was talking about when he said that if the trouble with Germany was that authority was so often exercised in a quasi-military manner, the trouble with Britain was that it was so often done by withholding information”.

To follow that, here is an excerpt from a talk given by my father thirty years ago at the University of Essex, in the period when he was their Chancellor. It is about his career in the Civil Service and finishes with some remarks about the first Referendum on membership of the European Community, which he organised, in 1975:

[Leaving Oxford in 1947 after taking a shortened degree in the post-War period] … my formal education was at an end – which meant, to my relief (a relief you may all understand), that I would not have to sit again with pen and paper in an examination hall. I was left with an ambivalent feeling about education which many may share. It would be untrue and churlish to say that I gained little from a total of six terms at Oxford, though I can see the force of the remark of Edward Welbourne, a former Master at Cambridge, who said:

   "Education is a fiction. It is merely the acquiring of the capacity to live in the society of people similarly educated."

And, brooding on how little I can remember of my early Latin and Greek, I have sometimes quoted on degree days here that ‘education is what is left when we have forgotten everything that we have learnt’. This sceptical view has made me question the value of some post-graduate work, particularly in the arts field.

On the other hand, I am a committed academic elitist, firmly convinced that the intellectually enquiring mind of man must be both free and disciplined – free in the pursuit of knowledge without constraints from government, and disciplined by the high standards of academic integrity that good research requires. As to fields of research, I was impressed last year by a remark from that great contemporary engineer, Sir Monty Finniston, Chancellor of another university, who said that, of course, universities must continue to push back the frontiers of science: but that, while we usually found a solution to many of the problems of science and technology, we seemed to be incapable of solving the problems of living in our own society, and that that was a task to which the universities, and their research students, should devote themselves. It is fair to say that this University is playing a valuable part in that direction …

I spent the first seventeen years of my Civil Service life working with the Navy in the Admiralty, now the Navy Department – then, as now, no place for a disenchanted sceptic, as Mr Clive Ponting found a year or two ago.[i] I was thirty four years altogether in Whitehall – twenty five in the Defence field; just over two years in the Cabinet Office; and six years at the Department of Health and Social Security. I do not know if there are any Civil Servants here this afternoon. If there are, they belong to a different generation from myself, and they may not nod approval when I say that I commend a career in the public service. I commend it, not because it offers secure, reasonably paid, and pensionable employment: it is now less secure; less well-paid than most jobs in the private sector; and its index-linked pensions have been constantly under challenge. I commend it because it offers, at least to those in the Administrative Group, week in and week out, the stimulus and enjoyment of difficult and different administrative and management tasks in a changing political environment.

The political climate has been changing further, somewhat disagreeably, since I left the Service. How do I see the Whitehall scene?

First, I think that there is a serious risk today of devaluing the Civil Service. I can understand the reason why. At the junior levels of the Service – for example, in the 500 social security offices for which I had some responsibility at the DHSS – there are many staff who find it difficult to understand, and so administer, the statutory policies and regulations that they are required to apply – and today, understandably, many of the public are thoroughly dissatisfied with the benefits which Government policies offer.

There is also a wide-spread tendency to look more critically than in the past at the upper reaches of the Service. The politicians sometimes view senior Civil Servants as the servants of a big country house: they welcome Ministers of a newly elected government as the new tenants of the house and, while acknowledging that it is their role to serve the new tenants as they wish, they do everything possible in practice to ensure that the house continues to run very much as they, the Civil Service, wish it to run. The present Prime Minister [Margaret Thatcher] would claim that she has changed all that: and there certainly have been valuable changes for the better in the management of the Service. But, in my own experience, the higher levels of the British Civil Service offer something which is virtually unique in the world – a non-political continuity of effective administration service in partnership with the Ministers of whatever political party is elected to power. At different times in my career, I myself was Private Secretary to Lord Carrington and to Mr Denis Healey; later on I worked with them both at a much more senior level. They have both become personal friends, and neither has ever cared, not asked, what my own political views are. ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ is a brilliant satire; like all satires it is streaked with truth; but it is not a reliable guide to the partnership between Ministers and Civil Servants which the complexity of government and international relations necessitates.

But what I have said is not intended to imply that I take a complacent view about the efficiency of government. On the contrary, I believe that we should be constantly searching for new ways of running the country that may prove more efficient and also more acceptable to all of us. This University has one of the best departments of government in any university, and I would hope that it will continue to contribute critical, constructive, carefully researched ideas and proposals.

The impact of information technology, and our role in the European Community beyond 1992, are two obvious factors with a potentially large impact on the operation of government. But there are wider factors than that. Those who are most critical of Whitehall – they include, for example, Sir John Hoskyns, to whom this University gave an honorary doctorate a year or two ago – tend to underrate the parliamentary factor. We pay a fairly high price in government efficiency (or inefficiency) for the valuable commodity of a vigorous parliamentary democracy; and it may be essential for Parliament to change its ways – as the televising of Parliament may gradually bring about.

As a member of the Franks Committee examining events leading up to the Falklands invasion, I learnt how exceptionally difficult it is to define and apply sound criteria by which to judge the operation of government. The House of Commons, not surprisingly, came down on the Government like a ton of bricks when the Falklands were invaded; but the House of Commons came down like a ton of bricks on Mr Ridley when he attempted, a few years earlier, to present a solution to the Falklands Islands problem. My experience in Hong Kong left me with unqualified admiration for what that extraordinary city – the free-est, but least democratic, city in the Commonwealth – had achieved with its urban and financial developments while coping with the constant influx of immigrants from Communist China; but I also realized that it was the absence of parliamentary democracy, and the associated adversarial relations in the House of Commons, which had enabled Hong Kong to apply a coherent and consistent economic strategy such as the UK had failed to pursue.

I had a ring-side seat for a sudden change of Government, with a radical change in policies, in 1974 – during my anxious, though fascinating, short period of years in the Cabinet Office. That experience underlined for me the importance of a partnership of trust between officials and Ministers. The Labour Party unexpectedly won the election of February 1974 at the time of the miners’ strike. It had committed itself to re-negotiating the terms of entry into the European Community and then consulting the wishes of the British people on the result. When it came into office, it was far from clear about the implications of either objective. The task of re-negotiation was tortuous; FCO officials in particular were fully committed to membership; the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary had to trust them when they pointed out the re-negotiation problems. What helped most at the time was the realization, particularly by James Callaghan, that, by the grace of its enlargement and historical evolution, the European Community was becoming the kind of community of which this island member of the Commonwealth could eventually be an effective member. Not that anyone can know what kind of Community it will eventually become; it seems unlikely to be the kind of Community that Jean Monnet originally envisaged, when the membership was only six countries, and we need to look for further evolution over a period of at least a hundred years.

A partnership of mutual confidence was also essential when it emerged, in autumn 1974, that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet had no clear idea of what they meant by the commitment to consult the wishes of the British people about the outcome of the re-negotiation. It turned out, as those with good memories here will know, that that commitment had to mean the first referendum in Britain; but that raised for us a range of difficult questions about the organization and operation of a referendum which had to be considered separately, and for the first time in British history, by the Labour Cabinet of the day. I still do not know how the Government would have acted if the result of the referendum in the summer of 1975 had been exceedingly close – one way or the other. The Cabinet had not committed itself beyond the idea that a majority would do, but could the country have lived with a majority of, say, only a few hundred votes in favour of staying within the Community? Or, even more difficult, in favour of coming out of the Community? We shall never know.

I remember the evening before the result was known. The Cabinet Secretary (now Lord Hunt) and I were due to have a discussion with the Prime Minister and Jim Callaghan, the Foreign Secretary, about the contingency planning we had done on the assumption that the referendum would take the United Kingdom out of the European Community. We found that our political masters had no interest in what we had to say. They were clearly convinced that the vote would be in the opposite direction. James Callaghan said that he had met an old woman in his own constituency of South East Cardiff who had said to him:

  "I don’t like this European Community, Mr Callaghan, but I have voted for my grandchildren; and I think that they would wish to be part of it."

[i] Clive Ponting was a Civil Servant accused of leaking sensitive documents relating to the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands conflict- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clive_Ponting  accessed 03/04/17.

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