Why Civil Service Department Heads should have one eye on future governments

A document listing the desired attributes of a future leader of a Ministerial Department has caused a storm in the UK.  One of its recommendations is that a candidate be able to “balance ministers’ or high-level stakeholders’ immediate needs or priorities with the long-term aims of their department, being shrewd about what needs to be sacrificed, at what costs and what the implications might be”.

Some Tory politicians, sensitive to their current lack of legislative progress in this department, and looking for scapegoats, have complained that the civil service is acting unconstitutionally in choosing its leaders for their capacity to face down their incumbent ministers.

Well, here is an amateur argument for why that characteristic IS constitutional.  The constitutional feature we all learn about at high school in the UK is that no single Parliament should be able to bind future Parliaments.  This principle is obviously routinely flouted.  Since every penny of spending committed today deprives a future Parliament of the same discretion.  Every piece of land built on cannot be restored to its prior state…. And so on.  But here lies the salvation of that controversial document.  Department heads – known in the UK as ‘permanent secretaries’ [a misnomer, since they are not permanent, though usually longer-lasting than their political bosses] – faced with demands for splurges in spending, or drastic changes in current capacity that might constrain future capacity, might reasonably object on the grounds that future Parliaments cannot be unduly bound.

The tradition that future Parliaments be not unduly bound is question-begging, of course.  Why should that be a good feature of a democracy?  The soundest reason I can see is that as yet unborn or not independent generations want to have the same say in their own affairs as we had in ours.

If you haven’t already clicked through to the offending document, it’s worth doing so just to absorb the tone of the final section headed ‘The X-Factor’, which, I forecast, will provide much enjoyment and study for those immersed in the sociology of the cult of ‘leadership’ in the modern age.

Postscript:  it occurs to me that there is a contrast between HMTs view of the function of a perm sec and that of Francis Maude.  HMT asked Nick Macpherson to step outside his role as immediate facilitator of Coalition policies and offer independent advice.  Maude objects to criteria for selecting perm secs on the basis that they can formulate benevolent but independent views about what should be done.  Our hypothetical Maude might comment that NM only intervenes when instructed to do so, so NM’s contribution isn’t an act of constitutional subordination or independence.  However, if that were the case, then the SNPs charge that NMs views can’t really be taken seriously, since they would not have been aired if they had not agreed with the Government’s, would be valid.

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