Sue Cameron is one of Britain’s pre-eminent observers of that most fascinating of species: the British civil servant. Her work as a journalist for the Financial Times, Telegraph, Civil Service World and Newsnight has focused on the people who, some would argue, really run the country.
In the latest episode of Free Exchange, the CapX podcast, she talks to Robert Colvile about her time going undercover in Whitehall in the Eighties, how well Britain is governed, how the Civil Service can cope with Brexit, and which Prime Ministers have been best at taming the Civil Service machine.
Sue Cameron on… going on secondment to the Civil Service (1 min 39)
“They were all lovely, but they were quite distrustful of me at first – ‘Don’t tell her anything’. They made me sign the Official Secrets Act, all that kind of stuff. It was very old-fashioned: I was used to using a typewriter, and they were still using pens. And the idea that someone should have a typewriter was regarded as really, really way out. Things had to go up to Lancashire to be typed, because that was what they’d done during World War 2, and they were still doing it.”
Sue Cameron on… Civil Service accountability (9 mins 30)
“They did get away with murder years ago. The civil servants would say to MPs, we were just doing what our minister told us. And the minister would say, that was an operational matter, entirely down to the civil servants. And no one ever took responsibility. Margaret Hodge put a stop to that.”
Sue Cameron on… projects that go wrong (12 mins 30)
“There are loads and loads of cock-ups. You look at it and think: how could it happen? But there aren’t easy to answers to most of them. There are a few where you can say So and So just shouldn’t have been allowed within a million miles of government. But often ministers just say ‘We want it, we’ve got to do this’.”
Sue Cameron on… coping with Brexit (18 mins)
“I think David Davis is someone who’s doing well – he’s an impressive minister in a very, very difficult job. And the civil servants like him because he listens to them – he doesn’t necessarily do what they want, but he gives them a hearing. And he will agree to disagree, unlike some ministers you can think of. And he’s very good at dealing with MPs – he’s always so genial. So that department is going probably as well as it can, in the circumstances.
“In general, most of them probably voted for Remain, almost to a man. But where the fruitcake element of the Brexit spectrum get it wrong is saying ‘They’re opposing us!’ The last thing you want if you’re a minister trying to do Brexit is civil servants who say it’ll be as easy as falling off a log. You want people who’ll point out every possible difficulty and obstacle, because forewarned is forearmed.
“Brexit, however much [civil servants] were against it as individuals, intellectually and professionally, is really, really interesting – it’s absolutely gripping from their point of view. How do we do it? How do we make it happen? What are we going to do about the border, trade deals, competition policy? There are so many different things.”
Sue Cameron on… the imperial Treasury (25 mins)
“The Treasury tended to produce the people who went on to become private secretaries in No 10, and ultimately Cabinet Secretary. So its nose is out of joint. The job of ambassador to Brussels for ages has gone to a Treasury man, and now it’s been given to a Foreign Office man. So there’s all sorts of private wars going on. But there’s also been a change in atmosphere – in the old days, what Gordon liked got money, and what he didn’t, didn’t. And that was replicated, in a slightly less violent way, with Cameron and Osborne. But that’s over now.”
Sue Cameron on… Theresa May (29 mins 30)
“The great thing about Theresa May is that she survived at the Home Office. Because it’s been a graveyard for a lot of politicians. Not only survived, she won. When she gave that speech to the Police Federation, reading them the Riot Act, I remember a minister said to me – a Lib Dem minister, not one of her own – that Home Office ministers have been wanting to make that speech for years and years and years, and now she’s had the courage to do it. It’s just amazing – we’re all in awe of her.
“But there are difficulties in what she’s doing. She relies an awful lot on Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who were with her at the Home Office. Civil servants say that they send stuff into No 10 for approval, and it just doesn’t come out again. And one of the difficulties is that it’s such a big workload coming at you from so many difficult directions that it’s very difficult to do it with a really tiny team. If you’re trying to do too much through your SpAds, it does become difficult. It’s fine so far. But it usually is fine, until it isn’t…”
Sue Cameron on… Civil Service reform (39 mins)
“They went through a period – they’ve got over it now – of hiring consultants and re-christening themselves, giving themselves new names. I think they’ve now got somebody who glories in the title of ‘Chief People Officer’. You do think, oh dear.”
Sue Cameron on… dealing with ministers (45 mins)
I did a discussion with top civil servants last year, and said ‘Isn’t it your job to say no, minister?’ And one said ‘No is a very ugly word. We try not to use it.’ What they say is ‘Well, if you want to do that, minister, maybe it would be better to do it this way or better to do it that way’. Rather than ‘I think you’re nuts’. And if a minister hasn’t got any ideas, or they’re completely unworkable, and you can’t get other people to agree – like the Chancellor or the Prime Minister or other colleagues – then of course the civil servants will step in. They’ve usually got [an idea] they’ve prepared earlier. But actually, they’re like any bunch of soldiers. They like is being led from the front, by ministers who know what they want and have got political clout.”
Sue Cameron on… Tony Blair (50 mins 30)
Was Blair good at governing? He was good at getting re-elected, but not at governing. He squandered huge advantages – and if he’d been prepared to listen to people more, both his ministers and his civil servants, he might have done a lot more.
You can listen to the full interview here:
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