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The Civil Service

Considering how complex modern states are, there are not really very many people in a British 'government' (as defined above). Unlike some other countries (the USA for example), not even the most senior administrative jobs change hands when a new government comes to power. The day-to-day running of the government and the implementation of its policy continue in the hands of the same people that were there with the previous government - the top rank of the civil service. Governments come and go, but the civil service remains. It is no accident that the most senior civil servant in a govern­ment department has the title of 'Permanent Secretary'.

Unlike politicians, civil servants, even of the highest rank, are unknown to the larger public. There are probably less than 10,000 people in the country who, if you asked them, could give you the names of the present secretary to the cabinet (who runs the cabinet office) or the present head of the home civil service; still fewer know the names of more than one of the present permanent secretaries.

For those who belong to it, the British civil service is a career. Its most senior positions are usually filled by people who have been working in it for twenty years or more. These people get a high salary (higher than that of their ministers), have absolute job security (unlike their ministers) and stand a good chance of being awarded an official honour. By comparison, ministers, even those who have been in the same department for several years, are still new to the job. Moreover, civil servants know the secrets of the previous gov­ernment which the present minister is unaware of.

For all these reasons, it is often possible for top civil servants to exercise quite a lot of control over their ministers, and it is sometimes said that it is they, and not their ministers, who really govern the country. There is undoubtedly some truth in this opinion. Indeed, an interesting case in early 1994 suggests that civil servants now expect to have a degree of control. At this time, the association which represents the country's top civil servants made an official complaint that four government ministers 'verbally abused' their civil service advisers and generally treated them 'with contempt'. It was the first time that such a complaint had been made. It seemed that the unprecedentedly long period of government by the same party (the Conservatives) had shifted the traditional balance of power.

However, the British civil service has a (largely) deserved reputa­tion for absolute political impartiality. Many ministers have remarked on the struggle for power between them arid their top civil servants, but very few have ever complained of any political bias. Top civil servants know that their power depends on their staying out of 'polit­ics' and on their being absolutely loyal to their present minister.

Modern criticism of the civil service does not question its loyalty bin its efficiency. Despite reforms, the top rank of the civil service is still largely made up of people from the same narrow section of society -people who have been to public school and then on to Oxford or Cambridge, where they studied subjects such as history or classical languages. The criticism is therefore that the civil service does not have enough expertise in matters such as economics or technology, and that it lives too much in its own closed world, cut off from the concerns of most people in society. In the late twentieth century, ministers tried to overcome these perceived defi­ciencies by appointing experts from outside the civil service to work on various projects and by having their own political advisers working alongside (or, some would say, in competition with) their civil servants.



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