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Cameron confused over indepdendence and impartiality

Posted on 26 April 2009 | 12:04pm

David Cameron says today he will restore the ‘independence’ of the civil service. I passionately hope he does not become Prime Minister, but if he did, I would advise him to learn the difference between ‘independence’ and ‘impartiality.’

The Civil Service has a duty to be impartial. That is not the same as independent.

An impartial civil service – ie one which supports the elected government in the devising and implementation of policy in a non-party political way – is a good thing, and for all the Tory and media claims to the contrary, I do not accept that we politicised the civil service. It is a matter of some pride to me that of all the people who have had a go at me for my time in Number 10, none of them were the civil servants who worked directly to me.

Government is political. Ministers are – or should be – political. Political advisors are political. Civil servants are not.

An independent civil service is an altogether different concept. That would be a civil service that did not feel any responsibility to work towards the agreed priorities of the elected government. A civil service with its own agenda. A civil service with permission, in effect, to be the very thing Cameron says he wants it not to be – political.

The vast bulk of civil servants do a good job. I met some truly exceptional people in the civil service who, had they chosen a different path, could have earned vastly greater rewards in the private sector, but who have a real belief in the concept of public service. I met many many more who were good professional people. And I met some who were not up to much. So the same as most walks of life.

But there were definitely times – I think mainly of some of the government’s efforts to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour, and other incidents when civil servants were not adequately supporting ministers under fire, and even working against them – when a minority did appear to confuse independence and impartiality.

I can see why, for political reasons post smeary emails, Cameron prefers to talk about this, or expenses, or a call for TV debates, rather than face up to some of the public spending and other policy decisions he is going to have to confront before an election. I can see too why he might think a big tribute to mandarins will go down well in Whitehall, and add to the mood of inevitability he wants to create that he is destined for Number 10.

But if he ever got there, he would be well advised to understand the difference between impartiality and independence, and make sure the civil service does too.

  • Arnie

    Yes, that’s a very good post, but it is the rest of your party’s incoherence that will help the electorate to decide to put Cameron into Number 10, your situation is not helped by the perpetual labour party leadership question and that, to me, has always been the most frightening thing about voting labour.

  • Pat Norrington

    Hope Mr. Cameron reads your blog, but on the other hand maybe not, we do not want to help Mr.C. make it good…well said Alastair….

  • Malcolm

    As a civil servant, I basically agree with everything you say there. But we are no different to anyone else and it is a normal human reaction to see where the wind blows. I was not around in 97 but I know most civil servants ware glad to see a new dynamic government come on the scene. Inevitably people are now reading the polls and seeing what the mood of the country is and they are bound to be thinking maybe there will be another change soon. I don’t detect the enthusiasm for change people talk of when Tony Blair came on the scene, but there is certainly a feeling of change ahead. You are right to tell Mr Cameron not to let the civil service run the show — that is not our

  • Francis Boyle

    The call for TV debates is made by every opposition leader around this time – I think your Mr Blair did the same. Or was it Mr Major calling for it, I don’t remember. I agree it is time Cameron starting doing policy but he clearly thinks he does not have to

  • Alina Palimaru


  • Caroline Hett

    I’ve only ever met civil servants in the ‘not up to much’ category.

  • Andy

    I find it interesting that you criticise Cameron for wanting TV debates instead of facing up to policy decisions. If he wasn’t confident with his policy positions he wouldn’t want TV debates – which is the same reason Brown won’t agree to them. If your government and PM is so great compared to Cameron and the Tories and the Tories have no plan for government what the hell is stopping Brown debating him in person and “showing” us all that this is really the case? Maybe because he knows that Cameron does have plenty of policies and ideas, and because he knows he is getting many of his policy ideas these days from the Tories? (loan guarantee scheme ring any bells?)

  • David

    Thank you Alastair – I’m not a civil servant but I am a public servant – your last commenter offered the usual lazy perspective about those who work for the public good! I have met good and not so good workers, managers, leaders in all of the arenas I’ve worked in – private, public and third sector. Interestingly, I would contend that independence does not exist in any of them – a director of a private (and in some cases charitable) company has a statutory duty to put the needs of the company first. I do not want or crave independence – I do recognise the absolute need for impartiality – and, sometimes do struggle with it! But, that struggle is important – I do not leave my values and principles in the car when I go into the office – but I do need to leave my partisanship!

  • Mark Williams

    Drivel. All professional advoisers in the private sector are impartial and independent,. but that doesn’t stop them giving the best possible advice to their clients. Impartial means that they are not giving any special favours or acting against their clients oytside their advice and independent means that they do not have any direct or indirect financial or other interest. Ask any accountant/auditor about independence and he/she will tell you that poiliticians have no idea what it means.

  • Wyrdtimes

    I can’t stand the Tories, they hate England almost as much as McLabour.

    But can anyone imagine Gordon Brown in a TV debate? lol He would make Nixon look like a natural.