Whitehall: The Self-Preserving, Incompetent Master of Us All


The list goes on. Whether it’s the chaotic NHS, the inflation and interest rate situation, the Afghanistan fiasco or 10 Downing Street partying the pandemic nights away, the guiding force behind these and countless other horrors for at least the last 70 years is Whitehall. You may wish to blame our elected politicians for all and sundry but, for the most part, you would be wrong to do so. They are the puppets and their Whitehall masters are ruling over us, with ever more incompetence, from the cradle to the grave.

I suppose I first became aware of this State of Affairs in the early 1970s at university when I read a summary of the 1968 Fulton Committee of Enquiry into the Civil Service, but it was in 1980, when one of its members, Lord Crowther-Hunt, got together with Peter Kellner, then at the Sunday Times, to write the revealing and forensic book “The Civil Servants. An enquiry into Britain’s Ruling Class”, that the penny dropped. I make no apology in drawing heavily from their book here for it provides a clear, albeit terrifying, view of the interplay between the Mandarins and the politicians then and, in so doing, illustrates how this system of incompetence remains in place even in 2022.

Anyone (including government ministers) who has had dealings with Whitehall over a period of time will tell you about their deep frustration at seeing those civil servants they were communicating with suddenly moved elsewhere. This is because the Civil Service culture of the mandarins has always been that of the generalist. Fulton fingered such back in 1968. The following on the Whitehall Administrative Class is taken from Kellner and Crowther-Hunt’s 1980 book:

“The administrators we (Fulton) interviewed (about one-tenth of the total membership of the class) had averaged 2.8 years in a job before being moved to somewhere completely different; and the modal (most frequently occurring) period in completed jobs was two years (as the City Grump referred to in 2012. See here). The main reason for this “turbulence”- as the Service charmingly called it – was the need to make the administrator into a true generalist. Only by regular moves between different jobs can an administrator “become conversant” with the wide range of often very specialist activities that fall under the umbrella of a particular department. Frequency of movement is crucial, too, if the administrator is to develop what is regarded as his real specialism – his knowledge and experience of the working of the government machine; you can develop this only if you can serve in as many parts of the machine as is humanly possible in your career”.

Fulton went on to to conclude that this dedicated development of the generalist had, in fact, seriously adverse consequence for the overall efficiency of Whitehall. Its main conclusions were:

  • Many administrators have so short a tenure in any job that even the most able of them rarely have time thoroughly to grasp the complex subjects with which they are dealing.
  • Without a deep understanding of these subjects, either by experience or training, few of them are in a position to evaluate in any fundamental way the extent to which the policies they are administering are successful. This must inhibit the drive for innovation.
  • (High mobility) produces inefficiency and slows down the administrative process, since an administrator has to spend so much time familiarising himself with problems his predecessor may have just mastered…
  • Short tenure and frequent handovers produce administrative instability and inconsistency…
  • Many administrators are neither able, nor concerned, to establish adequate contact with sources of expert advice inside or outside the Service or to develop a fruitful relationship with such sources. One officer in a highly technical area said that there was no point in making a great effort to find out what other countries were doing in his particular area of activity – or even to get to know as many British experts as possible – since he would be in that particular job for three years at most.
  • It prevents an administrator from handling the complete cycle of the policy-making process: analysing the problem, conducting or supervising or contributing to research into it, recommending a course of action and modifying policy in the light of the results.

In other words the whole Whitehall machine is set up to fail when it comes to devising and seeing through policies that make a positive, worthwhile difference to our lives. As that 1980 book pithily observed though, failure is usually covered up. It points to Sir Derek Rayner, a joint MD of Marks and Spencer who was seconded in the early 1970s to the Ministry of Defence to advise on procurement policy when he wrote:

“Whereas in business one is judged by overall success, in my experience the civil servant tends to be judged by failure. This inevitably conditions his approach to his work in dealing with the elimination of unnecessary paperwork, and in eliminating excessive monitoring, and leads to the creation of an unnecessary number of large committees, all of which leads to delays in decision-taking and the blurring of responsibility”.

So the machine is useless but surely Ministers can override it and impose their own will on Whitehall? Wrong because just as much as the administrators are engaged in musical chairs so are the politicians. The following extract from Kellner and Crowther-Hunt’s book will be all too familiar to our current Chancellor, Rishi Sunak:

“One major disadvantage for Ministers is that the average Ministerial tenure is woefully short….it must have been extremely difficult for an average Chancellor in his two and a half years (in office) to counter the Treasury view in any coherently rational way, bearing in mind that his first year must be largely spent being initiated into the manifold complexities of his new job; bearing in mind too, the long time-scale required both for the formulation and implementation of most policies and the subsequent period which has to elapse before their impact can be properly assessed. No wonder one Permanent Secretary at the Treasury who served under three post-war Chancellors recently estimated, in an incautious moment, that seventy-five percent of the time, successive Chancellors accepted uncritically the advice he gave them”

Time and tide waits for no man or woman and the mandarins know this always works in their favour. Kellner and Crowther–Hunt wrote, and this was, of course, before the present era 24 hour rolling news and social media scrutiny:

“An analysis of the working weeks of fifty Ministers – covering the 1964-70 Wilson administration and the 1970-74 Heath administration- found that Ministers spent a minimum of sixty hours each week (excluding weekends) working; of this at least forty-five hours each were spent in cabinet and cabinet committee meetings, Parliament, interviews and discussions with people outside the department, formal receptions and lunches, official visits, and constituency responsibilities. In other words, every Minister has a strenuous full-time job as politician and as an ambassador for his department before he can deal with the direct task of running his department – reading departmental papers, considering official advice, discussing and deciding policy options with colleagues and officials inside his ministry.”

Lord Balogh, erstwhile distinguished adviser to the Cabinet Office showed how Whitehall delivers its coup de grace in keeping Ministers under the mandarins’ thumbs:

“Most decisions of any importance involve more than one ministry. First they go to one interdepartmental committee at Assistant Secretary/ Under Secretary level. Then they go to an official committee of Permanent Secretaries chaired by the head of the Treasury or the Cabinet Office. Usually, some compromise is reached there before it comes to Ministers. For a cabinet minister to reverse a document that has been through these stages requires an intellect of a Newton and the thrust of Alexander the Great combined with a Napoleon. Such people are seldom met.”

It should almost go without saying that none of the present Cabinet possess such qualities, least of all our hapless Prime Minister with his total disinterest in detail. As Harriet Harman observed “not all civil servants admire strong political leadership but if you want to change things for the better you need strong political leadership”. No chance of that with Her Majesty’s Ship Johnson and his crew. And as Johnson and all his post-war predecessors know full well he can’t rely on the loyalty of those in Whitehall closest to him. Again from Lord Balogh:

“In the private office they pretend to be loyal; but the Minister does not control the career of his private office officials. They are high-flyers: they know they must be Assistant Secretaries by the time they are thirty-five, and Under-Secretaries by the age of forty-otherwise they are not going to make it. And their fate is in the hands of senior civil servants”.

Yes it is the Whitehall puppeteers who rule over us and as ever they are making a complete hash of it. Let me finish with the four examples I gave at the start of this article. On the 16th May it was reported that there has been a 130% increase in senior roles at the NHS in the last two years, while senior headcount at the Department of Health has doubled. More than 600 civil servants and senior public officials are paid over £150,000 – up 16% on two years ago. And Rishi Sunak is trying to persuade that the increase in National Insurance tax is going into frontline NHS staff? Instead, as usual, the mandarins are into expensive and extensive self-preservation.

Also, on the 16th May, the economist Dr Gerard Lyons, in an excoriating article headed “Groupthink plagues the Bank of England. There is precious little diversity of thought evident at either the Bank or the Treasury”, lambasted the abysmal outcomes of economic and financial policy making over the last year:

“Under New Labour… the Treasury became a super-ministry. Its tentacles spread, and micro-economic management dominated. Distrust of the market mechanism held sway. Yet the troubles are more widespread than just Whitehall. The Bank was made independent in 1997. However, the Chancellor, supervised by mandarins, nominates the Governor, while the Treasury overseas the selection process of deputy governors and of outside members of the Bank’s policy committees. The Bank is independent in the sense that Parliament does not hold it to proper scrutiny – but the way it thinks and acts is hardly independent of the Treasury at all”.

On the 24th May the Foreign Affairs Committee reported its findings on our evacuation from Afghanistan last August. It concluded it was shambolic and called for the resignation of the Foreign Office’s Permanent Secretary, Sir Philip Barton. During this crisis where people this country was responsible for were losing their lives, Barton decided to remain on holiday and many of his FCO civil servants decided to just carry on working from nine to five and often from home.

On the 25th May Sue Gray released her report on Partygate.  She found that 10 Downing Street staff frequently held parties while the rest of the country was in lockdown (one went on until after 4am on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral) and that “some of the more junior civil servants believed that their involvement in some of these events was permitted given the attendance of senior leaders. The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture”.  Just another, albeit shocking example, of how Whitehall’s arrogance and inbred naivety, as identified all those years ago in the Fulton Report, continues to rule the roost.

I leave the last word to that brilliant Second World War General, George. S. Patton:

“A civil servant is sometimes like a broken cannon-it won’t work and you can’t fire it”.

The City Grump has spent some 40 years in the City of London. He started as a stockbroker’s analyst but after some years he decided he was too grumpy to continue with the sell side of things so he moved to the buy side and became a fund manager for the next 20 years, selling his own business in the 1990s. Post the millennium, he found himself in turn chairing a stockbroker, a financial PR company, and an Exchange. He still keeps his hand in, chairing a brace of VCTs and investing personally in start-ups. The City Grump’s publications are available here.