Turnbull vs. Brown: disgraceful, but… (with update 23 March 07)

Lord Turnbull broke the most basic rules by speaking about Gordon Brown to a national newspaper as he did.  But it's not as straightforward as it looks.

In the Financial Times on 20 March 2007 Lord Turnbull, former Treasury Permanent Secretary and subsequently Head of the Civil Service, savaged Gordon Brown, with whom he had worked closely for years:

Gordon Brown, the UK chancellor and likely next prime minister, has exhibited a “Stalinist ruthlessness” in government, belittling his cabinet colleagues whom the Treasury treats with “more or less complete contempt”, according to the man who was Britain’s top civil servant until two years ago.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Lord Turnbull, permanent secretary to the Treasury for four years under Mr Brown before becoming cabinet secretary in 2002, accused the prime minister-in-waiting of a “very cynical view of mankind and his colleagues”.

Now Owen's blog has excoriated Lord Turnbull for his flagrant breach of the civil service rules which he, Turnbull, had quoted with emphatic approval less than two years ago in evidence to the Public Service Select Committee:

“Civil servants should conduct themselves in such a way as to deserve and retain the confidence of ministers” and “Civil servants should continue to observe their duties of confidentiality after they have left Crown employment.”

Owen's judgement is severe:

Civil servants have no business revealing their views of Ministers and their behaviour – even after they cease to be civil servants. That is part of the job. Turnbull should not have spoken as he did.

Lord TurnbullThat must be right.  There can be no bond of trust between ministers and their senior officials, a bond that is essential to the proper process of decision-making in public affairs, if ministers have reason to suspect that within a short time, when they are still in office, their officials are going to go public with criticisms of their working methods and personal style.   

And yet…

Two reluctant reservations.  First, it takes two to bond as well as to tango.  Officials are also entitled to feel confident that their ministers will not break that bond of trust by publicly blaming their officials for policy and operational failures for which ministers should accept responsibility.  Ignorance of what is going wrong in a minister's department can never be an excuse: it's a minister's duty to make sure he knows what is going on, and wrong, and to satisfy himself that the relevant officials can be trusted to keep him informed.  The principle of ministerial accountability is wrecked if ministers get away with constantly blaming their officials for their own failures.

Secondly, in the case of Gordon Brown, there must be a case for putting into the public domain by one means or another important evidence by which ordinary citizens can judge his fitness to be prime minister:  how he works, his relationships with his colleagues and his officials (as distinct from those with his small coterie of political advisers), his openness or secretiveness, his willingness to listen to unwelcome advice, his ability to delegate.  Of course there is plenty of evidence already on public record about these matters, not least in Tom Bower's revealing and uninhibited biography, but also in many harsh comments on the secretive Chancellor coming out of a frustrated No. 10, and occasional outbursts by frustrated colleagues such as Charles Clarke. But these can be partially discounted as the products of political jealousy, the resentments always generated by a Chancellor who won't give spending ministers as much dosh as they want, and the general frictions of politics at the top.  The evidence of a top civil servant with first-hand knowledge of the subject is less easily dismissed and must carry more weight.  Would it have been right to suppress it when the public interest arguably demands that it be made available?

Lord Turnbull has claimed that he had not intended the FT to quote him verbatim on Mr Brown (a curious claim from an official who must have long experience of dealing with the media and ensuring that the basis on which he speaks is firmly established before he says anything): perhaps his intention was to get his judgement of Brown into the public domain without revealing that he had been the source.  But (a) that would have weakened the impact of his comments, which depended crucially on the fact that they came from himself; and (b) the issue is what he said, not the basis on which he thought he was saying it. 

On balance Turnbull was plainly wrong to have spoken as he did, and he has done more harm than good by doing it.  But the arguments are not as straightforward as they seem at first sight.

Meanwhile the Guardian distinguishes itself by asserting editorially that if strong ministers such as Mr Brown place themselves firmly in the driving seat, it's natural that 'mandarins' (the Guardian's old-fashioned give-away term for civil servants) feel uncomfortable with them — an almost childish expression of an old Labour prejudice and paranoia that ten years of Labour government ought to have banished by now.  No surprise then that the Guardian didn't publish the letter that I sent it yesterday, citing my 37 years in the public service:

In today's main editorial (Gordon Brown, The character thing, March 21) you repeat the old canard that "mandarins are rarely comfortable when strong ministers and their advisers place themselves firmly in the driving seat, as Mr Brown and his lieutenants have done."  In fact civil servants are most comfortable with a decisive minister who knows his or her mind and gives a strong lead.  What makes them uncomfortable is when ministerial decisions are made without first using the immense resources of their departments to encourage frank and uninhibited analysis of them, sometimes including warnings by officials — and Cabinet colleagues — about their likely unintended consequences.  Ministers are perfectly free to reject such advice and warnings in their final decisions, which officials (pace Yes Minister) will then loyally execute, doing their best to make them work whatever their private misgivings.  But the quality of ministerial decisions is bound to suffer, and the country to be worse governed as a result, if decisions are taken without first being tested by exposure to the advice of experienced and dispassionate officials and of interested ministerial colleagues.  Even after nearly ten years in office, neither Mr Blair nor, apparently, Mr Brown seems to have learned this rather basic lesson. 
[Note: Passages in bold italics are those omitted from the version of this letter published in the Guardian on 23 March 2007:  see Update, below.]

These harmful myths die hard: they pop up again repeatedly in many of the comments on the Guardian editorial on Comment is Free.  As I have remarked many times before, Yes Minister was brilliantly funny but has a lot to answer for. 

Update, 23 March 2007:  Contrary to expectation, today's Guardian has published my letter about ministers and officials, or at any rate a version of it.  But three quite minor editing changes, especially the third, have obscured its main point so as to make it almost unintelligible.  In the text of the letter as submitted, quoted above, I have now put in italics the three passages omitted from the version as published.  Without these, you have to read the whole thing several times before you can work out what the letter is driving at.  Yet the saving in space is negligible.  This is not the first time I have experienced this frustrating process at the hands of seemingly wooden-headed Guardian letters editors or their sub-editor colleagues.  Needless to say, there is no consultation before they mangle their correspondents' texts: they just telephone to check that you are who you say you are and that it was you that sent the letter.  Still, I should rejoice that they did print something approximating to what I had written — even if the letter is buried among a lot of other letters about the fine points of the budget. 


3 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    I agree on the last point – it’s a shame the Guardian has bought into so much of the New Labour worldview. But need it be an Old Labour prejudice? I think New Labour’s anti-Civil Service bias owes more to Thatcher than to Benn – it’s not driven by class thinking but by simple autocratic resentment of anyone who gets in the way. I suppose the test of this theory would be to see if Guardian leaders still feature trade union ‘barons’ along with the mandarins.

  2. ed says:

    Check out Gordon Brown picking his nose and eating it at yesterday's PMQs. It's on youtube:


    Don't suppose the BBC will be broadcasting this.

  3. Ruth Kennedy says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the reluctant reservations you give above. On the Guardian, why don't you email the Readers Editor detailing your frustration with the obfuscation of your letter? I have found he is very responsive.

    Brian writesThanks for that suggestion, Ruth.  I too have had exchanges with the former Guardian Readers' Editor, Ian Mayes, about various matters, including the Guardian's ruthless treatment of the texts of letters submitted to them, but I have never had a satisfactory response on that question, and on various points of syntax that I used to raise with Mr Mayes I started to get no replies at all, satisfactory or otherwise:  I suppose he quite understandably grew tired of my nit-picking.  However, he has retired in the last few days so I might have a go at his successor about the mauling of my letter.

    Incidentally the Times used to be wonderfully punctilious about getting the agreement of the writers of letters submitted to them to even quite small editing changes before publishing anything over the writer's name — a comparison that I have drawn to the Guardian's attention more than once.  But now the Times has dropped that laudable practice and edits letters quite mercilessly without consent, like the Guardian.  (However the Independent and the FT have both recently published letters from me without changing so much as a comma.  The age of chivalry isn't quite dead!)