Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn & The Civil Service

by ukcivilservant

Daniel Finkelstein’s article in The Times this morning draws attention to possible future friction between Jeremy Corbyn and the Civil Service, and mentions the 1970s disputes between Tony Benn and his officials.  But I would draw the opposite conclusion from Mr Benn’s experience, and suggest that Mr Corbyn might have an easier ride than he expects.

Mr Benn’s problem was that he was sharply at odds with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and most of the rest of the Cabinet.  He didn’t want them to know what he was up to, and hated it when his officials (in his view) communicated with other departments behind his back. But civil servants are accountable to the government as a whole – and in particular to a Cabinet bound together by collective responsibility.   It is absolutely forbidden (with one minor exception) for Ministers to ask officials to hide things from interested Ministers and officials in other departments, nor may they ask them to help circumvent collective discussion, e.g. by announcing a ‘decision’ whilst a Cabinet colleague remains opposed to it.

A Corbyn (or Johnson/Hunt) led government would not therefore face the same problem.  The civil service machine would do its best to deliver policies approved by the Prime Minster and Cabinet – and would do its best to help Ministers defend those policies in Parliament.  Mr Corbyn’s enemies might well regret the efficiency (if not the zeal) with which civil  servants would implement a left wing agenda.

As Danny Finkelstein notes, Tony Benn believed that officials should be directly accountable to Parliament, and not to ‘the establishment’ – aka the government of the day.  But I very much doubt whether Mr Corbyn, or any other Prime Minster, will so readily hand over the reins of power in this way.

It is also worth recording that relations between Mr Been and his officials were not quite as bad as often reported.  There was a quite moving exchange of letters when Mr Benn was reshuffled, including this from his Permanent Secretary. (whom Mr Benn had visited when in hospital)

“Granted the political balance within the Cabinet, you were bound to face your senior advisers with some difficult problems, but … we enjoyed the challenges and the stimulation, and you were generous in your appreciation of the support that you received on such key subjects as the Industry Bill and the Post Office. …  We admired your outstanding skill in communication (even when, occasionally, we were worried about what you were communication) and the deftness of your drafting. “

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government   and  Understanding the Civil  Service