Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

Post-Brexit Bureaucracy: Rules of Origin

It took many years of patient negotiation, led by the UK, to transform the EU’s tariff-free zone into a genuine Single Market free of regulatory barriers. This blog explains why the post-Brexit reintroduction of Rules of Origin for UK imports and exports might cause problems, even if we achieve a zero-tariff agreement with the EU27.

Why are rules of origin needed? The short answer is that (assuming we leave the single market) such rules will be needed to show that the UK is not being used by third countries to gain low tariff access to the single market. Let’s assume that the EU27 want to impose higher tariffs on imports from China than on imports from the UK – which will post-Brexit hopefully be tariff-free.   The EU27 are clearly not going to allow the UK to import Chinese goods, pack them in a different box, and sell them on to the EU as if they originate here. All UK exporters will therefore need to comply with the EU’s ‘Rules of Origin’ bureaucracy – and the EU will have to comply with ours.

(I am told that the rules go back at least as far as to a case involving Singer typewriters which were made in Japan, assembled in the UK & described as British.)

Here are the main potential problems if rules of origin need to be enforced in future in respect of trade between the UK and the EU:

Paperwork: Every exporter – however small – will have to work out whether their goods originate in the UK or abroad. They will therefore need to understand important concepts such as preferential and non-preferential origin, percentage rules, diagonal and full cumulation, and minimal processing. These are explained in the annex to this blog.

There are unlikely to be any SME exemptions – even if you are selling only via Etsy or eBay. UK origin may often be obvious, but what if you are a small scale exporter of handmade chocolates, say, or handicrafts?  The cocoa or raw materials will most likely originate outside the UK – so do you have to declare non-UK origin and pay EU customs duties?

Customs delays could be much more serious. Many manufacturers work on a ‘just in time’ basis so as to avoid holding stocks which need to be stored and financed. Modern customs processes are pretty efficient but even spot checks to ensure compliance with rules of origin could devastate a production schedule. And who in Germany is going to buy a Christmas present from the UK if it not going to arrive quickly, especially when customs checks delay an already stressed Christmas postal system?

It must also be of some concern that a very large percentage of UK exports to the EU will go via Dover, Calais and other Channel ports which don’t currently have the infrastructure to process or spot-check a large number of lorries per day.  So – if the UK exits the Single Market before the French authorities have either had the time or the inclination to upgrade the facilities at the French ports – do we end up with a queue of lorries half-way back to Birmingham within a week? There will presumably also be queues back towards Brussels if we don’t start building new facilities at Dover (or Calais?) pretty soon now – unless HMG is absolutely confident that we will not need them, maybe because our external tariffs are very low.

And what happens at the Irish/Northern Irish border? Somebody will need to build and operate customs facilities either here or at the Irish, French and Spanish ports.

This in turn leads to possible underhand non-tariff barriers. Protectionist pressure can lead to Customs authorities inspecting imports in considerable detail, opening random boxes and taking products apart to inspect components, as the French did in their famous use of Poitiers as a border port some years ago. We clearly hope to achieve an amicable divorce from the EU27, but who is to tell whether this friendship will last forever?

I wonder, too, whether there could be pressure to remove UK components from EU27 products so as to avoid those products being reclassified as non-EU because they contain UK components? An Airbus without British wings is unlikely, I guess, but less prominent examples might start to appear. Angela Merkel has already started encouraging German owned manufacturers to consider investing in Eastern Europe rather than the UK.


What does originating and non-originating mean? As the purpose of this blog is to draw attention to the consequences of leaving the Single Market, it might be helpful if I stress the importance of understanding the voluminous HMRC guidance in this area. This is summarised here. I do not expect many to read it – but you might like to draw it to the attention of anyone who is currently exporting or importing within the EU, but not outside it. They have around two years to get their heads around this stuff!

OECD studies of trade costs have indicated that trade facilitation measures such as simplified documentary requirements, automation of customs procedures, availability of advance customs rulings, and risk based clearance can deliver significant cost savings to businesses engaged in trade. I have seen estimates that the absence of such trade formalities can increase the average cost to trade by the equivalent of 10%+ of the value of the traded goods, although this figure seems high and has been challenged – see the first comment below. It is to be hoped, of course, that our eventual agreement with the EU will eventually enable our businesses to avoid some of these costs, but it will be impressive if we have negotiated many of them away by March 2019 … or perhaps for a good time after that.

This note should be read in conjunction with my previous blog on non-tariff barriers. As with that blog, I do not claim specific expertise in this area and would be glad to be corrected if I have misunderstood or exaggerated anything. Any corrections will be incorporated in this blog, and significant changes will be notified via Twitter.

Martin Stanley



The UK, led by Margaret Thatcher, drove the creation of the Single Market. Here’s how we could lose if we now leave it.

The creation of the European Single Market was driven by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her appointee as a European Commissioner, Lord Cockfield. They recognised that a genuinely open market had to be free of all regulatory obstacles (aka non-tariff barriers) to the free movement of goods and services. The Single Market was essentially completed by 1992 and exporters can now call on the European Commission and European courts to remove any new obstacles.

The downside, of course, was that individual member states could no longer develop regulations to suit their own cultures and economies – and so we see a certain Europe-wide homogeneity. Indeed, much standard setting is now worldwide: Ford’s Mondeo being the first of many vehicles designed for a worldwide market.

But the growth of ‘just in time’ manufacturing means that many firms are still very concerned that their businesses on both sides of the UK/EU border might experience significant post-Brexit impediments and delays in ports and at customs posts.  I understand that one major bank has estimated that – if the UK were to lose unfettered access to the Single Market – the consequential non-tariff barriers could impose a cost on exporters equivalent to a tariff of 10-15%.

The rest of this post contains examples of the various non-tariff barriers that might appear post-Brexit, without seeking to draw conclusions about the likely impact of those barriers, which is for others, more expert than me, to assess.

The most quoted example was the Germans attempt to impede the import of Cassis de Dijon, a blackcurrant liqueur which has an alcohol content of only 15-20%. German law used to require all fruit liqueurs to have an alcohol content of at least 25%. While this may have pleased the producers of German spirits, the rule was bad news for the French producer and denied German consumers the delights of French crème de cassis. The EU court said that the German rule interfered with free movement of goods: it stopped French cassis (which had been lawfully produced in France) from being sold in Germany. The Germans sought to justify their rule on the grounds of public health, as they wanted to avoid the proliferation of alcoholic beverages with low (<25%) alcohol content since these might be a stepping stone to indulging in stronger concoctions. The court wasn’t convinced. The German rule was found to be against EU law and so had to be removed.

More recently, Bulmers Cider used the European Courts to ensure that it could sell its product in 0.33l bottles despite a Belgian Royal Decree that such bottle sizes were banned. This led to importers into the UK being able to ignore UK ‘prescribed quantities’ whilst domestic packers had to comply – so the UK, too, then had to abandon  prescribed quantities. A neat bit of deregulation courtesy of Europe!

It might be helpful if we look at seven different types of non-tariff barrier:

1. Innovation: There could be problems if the EU were to develop regulations affecting the sale of UK products elsewhere in the EU without input from the UK. Vehicle regulations, for instance, are frequently amended to permit the introduction of new technologies, to improve cyclist safety, to reduce emissions and so on. This isn’t a problem as long as

  • UK officials (briefed by UK companies) are on the committees that present the changes to Ministers for approval, and
  • we have plenty of notice of the date on which the changes come into force.

However, if we leave the Single Market, there will no longer be any UK officials at EU meetings, so we may no longer know what changes are being proposed, nor when they are likely to be introduced, and we can be pretty certain that our competitors will encourage their governments to promote changes that will disadvantage those products in which UK manufacturers have strengths not shared by EU competitors.

This problem is mitigated in the case of established products by a complex set of international agreements which facilitate the international marketing of vehicles and many other products – see Andrew Chapman’s first very helpful comment below for more detail.

But the problem will be greatly magnified if we are interested in selling new technology, such as bio-engineered products or the control systems that will permit driverless cars. It will be very difficult quickly to take such products to market if we are not able to influence the regulations that will allow such products to be sold throughout the EU.

Vehicle emissions rules are a good example of the sort of problem that can arise.  A German backed proposal would have allowed manufacturers to work to an average of their emissions across their whole fleet – so BMW could produce luxury cars that produce more emissions than the average but offset those with smaller, less polluting models.  This was a big problem for Jaguar Land Rover, who only make top-end luxury cars.  The UK eventually gained a derogation to protect JLR in the emissions rules.  But this would not have been possible if we had not been involved in the design of the regulations.

James Dyson (inventor of bag-less vacuum cleaners) hit a similar problem when he was surprised by new EU energy-saving rules which meant that competitors’ machines were only tested when they were empty of dust which therefore under-recorded the environmental impact of the vacuum cleaners that used bags. The result was that he is no longer allowed to make vacuum cleaners with a motor that exceeds 1,600 watts. (This rule change had been mistakenly approved by Department of Energy officials and Ministers who had not realised the implications for Dyson.)

It is, however, only fair to point out that Eurosceptics complain that the need to achieve harmonisation can significantly delay the innovative process. It would be much better, in their view, if we could innovate as fast and as often as we wish, and leave the rest of the world clamouring to buy UK products.

2. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), and Manufacturing Regulations and Standards: Trade will be disrupted if there develop two separate systems of IPR protection, and of the certification of safety etc. standards in fields such as chemicals, medicines, IT, and communications. These are, for instance, currently harmonised in the form of CE Marks, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (i.e. lead/mercury-free) Directive, the REACH (chemicals) Regulations and the Good Manufacturing Practice Guidelines. Maybe we can safely assume that the UK will continue to impose such European regulation on UK business, in order to help exporters and importers? But UK Ministers and officials may not be able to influence the future development of such regulations, and may come under pressure to develop our own regulations maybe leaving us in a weaker (and more regulated) situation than now.

3. Food health scares (whether justified or not) almost inevitably lead to import restrictions which usually continue far longer than necessary following lobbying by domestic farmers and other producers. The United States, for instance, only began to allow the import of British beef and lamb from January 2017, nearly 20 years after they were deemed unfit for consumption during the UK’s vCJD (mad cow disease) scandal. This is worth £35 million a year. But the EU was persuaded by the UK to lift its import ban (which had anyway applied to beef only) much more quickly – around ten years ago.

4. Services:- Mutual Recognition: UK professional qualifications are currently widely accepted through the EU. But architects, lawyers, nurses, accountants, hairdressers and many others will not be able to practise outside the UK if there is no reciprocal freedom of movement, and they could anyway well find that they meet ‘interesting’ local barriers if they were to seek to offer their services in the EU after Brexit.

There is a related issue in the financial services sector where the ‘single passport’ system allows e.g. Japanese banks to base themselves in London but offer finance (for instance for vehicle sales) throughout the EU. But continuing to subscribe to this system would mean accepting continued convergence between UK and EU regulations, so limiting the extent to which the UK would be free to go its own way.

The debate about whether EU membership encourages or stifles innovation is very relevant, of course – see above.

5. Packaging and Labeling: This is an easy one. Text TOO BIG, too small, wrong colour? More information needed? Change the regulation and the UK will either have to fall into line or else UK exporters will need to cope with two sets of regulations – one UK, one EU – if they are to avoid having their products stuck in Customs warehouses.

This leads nicely to …

6. Customs Formalities: There are currently almost no customs documentation, checks and delays when products cross the Channel. This will have to change, and this will add delay, and hence cost, to all export businesses – and importers as well. Rules of Origin may well be a huge problem as the other 27 Customs authorities will need to be sure that products being imported from the UK – at UK/EU tariff rates – did not in fact originate elsewhere.

It has been reported, for instance, that northern France has only two border inspection posts for animal and food products.  (Calais does not have that capability because all its imported products come from the UK.) France will quickly need to build new capacity if it is to ensure that we Brits can continue to compete with French farmers.  Anyone willing to bet that they will do so?

It will also become very easy for an unfriendly bureaucracy to hold products for many days or weeks whilst they laboriously double check that the products comply with all the necessary product, labelling, rules of origin, and other regulations. “It’s such a shame that the appropriate expert is on holiday just at the moment and, no, I am not too sure when he will be back. And there is unfortunately such a backlog …”

The classic example was in 1982, well before the creation of the Single Market. The French Government, determined to protect the video cassette recording (VCR) market from the invading Japanese, selected Poitiers to be the customs bottleneck. Poitiers was chosen for two reasons: First, symbolically, because it was the town where the medieval Franks had turned back the Muslim hordes in 732 AD. Second, because Poitiers is right in the middle of France, so maximizing the journey the VCRs would have to take from any French sea-port. The New York Times reported that “tens of thousands of video tape recorders built in Japan and avidly sought by French customers are currently stacking up in warehouses. A handful of customs inspectors, hand-picked for slowness, has cut the clearances from 100,000 per month down to 8,000.”

7. Subsidies: Not really a barrier – but European rules currently prohibit much inter-member state competition to ‘buy’ inward investment, and these ‘state aid’ rules are policed pretty firmly, especially when one member state complains that another member state is being over-generous. But there is likely to be much less concern when the loser is the UK, and the grateful recipient of new investment – and jobs – is within the EU.

We, of course, will be equally free to start subsidising industries that are losing out to EU competition. It is probably one of the reasons why Jeremy Corbyn wants us to leave the Single Market.   You will have your own view about whether this will be a good thing.

So ….

What about Inward Investment? Imagine yourself sitting in Tokyo or Mumbai deciding whether to put down a new production line either in the UK or in an EU member state, both of which are vying for your attention and appear to offer similar costs and benefits – except for the threat of new non-tariff barriers, and the inability to influence European manufacturing policies. Did anyone ever get fired for choosing to invest in a market of 450 million people?

There is no short-term economic damage but slowly, year on year, the UK would begin to fall behind.

But, but, but … surely all these behaviours will reduce competition, raise prices, lower member state economic growth rates and harm EU consumers? Their imposition would surely damage EU GDP, maybe as much as the UK. Yes – but that applies to all trade barriers, including tariffs. Often, however, it makes political and social sense to impose tariffs and non-tariff barriers if they protect jobs in regions of high unemployment and/or in sectors that are under economic pressure. And large companies can be very persuasive when encouraging politicians to protect their business models against ‘unfair’ competition from those awful Anglo-Saxons.


Exports of goods and services to the EU in 2015 totaled £134bn and £89bn respectively. The equivalent figures for exports to non-EU countries were goods £149bn, services £136bn.

“Access to the single market” is a meaningless phrase. The key question is: “Can we trade without hitting tariff and non-tariff barriers”.

This is the fifth version of a blog originally published in October 2016. I am very grateful to those who have commented – including those who commented below – and so helped me correct and improve the text. Further corrections and additional arguments would be very welcome – to please.


Martin Stanley  &  @ukregulation

And also  &  @ukcivilservant

Here’s a Simple Trade Agreement – 34 Pages on Fish!


Following its exit from the EU, the Greenland Government needed to be sure that fish caught in its waters could be sold in the EU.   The EU is the largest single fisheries market in the world and more than a quarter of the fish caught by European fishing boats are taken outside EU waters.

These are the three principal documents establishing the current EU/Greenland Fisheries Agreement. Note in particular that the agreement requires Greenland to ‘uphold fundamental rights as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, including work-related rights’.

Regulation 753/2007 and

2007 Fisheries Partnership Agreement (c. 8 pages)

The 2015 Protocol (replaces 2007 version) (c.26 pages)


Martin Stanley




Chilcot’s Criticisms of the Civil Service


This note summarises the criticisms of senior civil servants implicit in the Chilcot Report.

(I do not include the detailed criticisms of the failure to plan effectively, nor the failures of intelligence community. Text in italics is quoted directly from the report.)

There appear to be seven principal criticisms:

  1. No-one challenged the Prime Ministers’ habit of drafting vital inter-governmental communications without consulting his Cabinet colleagues

Mr Blair … drafted many or most of his Notes to the President himself, showing the drafts to his close advisers in No.10 but not (ahead of despatch) to the relevant Cabinet Ministers.

  1. No-one sought to record the reasons why the Prime Minster concluded that Iraq was in breach of resolution 1441, although this was an essential ingredient of the legal basis for the war.

In the letter of 14 March 2003 from Lord Goldsmith’s office to No.10 … Mr Blair was told that an essential ingredient of the legal basis was that he, himself, should be satisfied of the fact that Iraq was in breach of resolution 1441. In accordance with that advice, it was Mr Blair who decided that, so far as the UK was concerned, Iraq was and remained in breach of resolution 1441. Apart from No.10s response to the letter of 14 March, sent the following day, in terms that can only be described as perfunctory, no formal record was made of that decision and the precise grounds on which it was made remain unclear.

  1. No-one ensured that Cabinet Minsters were provided with proper legal advice

… the Inquiry concludes that [the Attorney-General] Lord Goldsmith should have been asked to provide written advice which fully reflected the position on 17 March and explained the legal basis on which the UK could take military action and set out the risks of legal challenge.

  1. No-one challenged the Prime Minister’s failure to discuss Iraq policy in Defence and Overseas Policy Committee (DOP).

In April 2002, the MOD clearly expected consideration of military options to be addressed through DOP. Mr Simon Webb, the MOD Policy Director, advised Mr Hoon that: “Even these preparatory steps would properly need a Cabinet Committee decision, based on a minute from the Defence Secretary …” The last meeting of DOP on Iraq before the 2003 conflict, however, took place in March 1999.

There was no substantive discussion of the military options, despite promises by Mr Blair, before the meeting on 17 March.

  1. No-one ensured that decisions were properly recorded and explained.

Most decisions on Iraq pre-conflict were taken either bilaterally between Mr Blair and the relevant Secretary of State or in meetings between Mr Blair, Mr Straw and Mr Hoon, with No.10 officials and, as appropriate, Mr John Scarlett (Chairman of the JIC), Sir Richard Dearlove and Admiral Boyce. Some of those meetings were minuted; some were not. As the guidance for the Cabinet Secretariat makes clear, the purpose of the minute of a meeting is to set out the conclusions reached so that those who have to take action know precisely what to do; the second purpose is to “give the reasons why the conclusions were reached”.

  1. No-one challenged the failure to organise adequate Cabinet discussion of the Iraq strategy.

Cabinet was certainly given updates on diplomatic developments and had opportunities to discuss the general issues. The number of occasions on which there was a substantive discussion of the policy was very much more limited.

  1. No-one challenged the Chancellor’s determination deliberately to keep the Cabinet Secretariat short of resources.

Sir David had found it quite hard to staff the Cabinet Office at the level he would have wanted and it had been necessary to prioritise. The Treasury had kept [the secretariat], he expected “deliberately”, on “a very tight leash in order to restrain the growth of Downing Street”.

Chilcot’s conclusion, therefore, was as follows:-

The Inquiry considers that there should have been collective discussion by a Cabinet Committee or small group of Ministers on the basis of inter-departmental advice agreed at a senior level between officials at a number of decision points which had a major impact on the development of UK policy before the invasion of Iraq. 

 In addition to providing a mechanism to probe and challenge the implications of proposals before decisions were taken, a Cabinet Committee or a more structured process might have identified some of the wider implications and risks associated with the deployment of military forces to Iraq. It might also have offered the opportunity to remedy some of the deficiencies in planning which are identified in Section 6 of the Report.

No Permanent Secretaries or other senior colleagues are criticised by name, although, in seeking to explain the behaviour of the Cabinet Secretary, the Inquiry noted Sir David Omand’s evidence that “… the Cabinet Secretary was not as present as previous Cabinet Secretaries … would have been … the Cabinet Secretary could have “made a fuss” about that: “But it would have been at the direct expense of not being able to devote the time to sorting out reform and delivery across the government’s agenda.”

The then Cabinet Secretary – Andrew, later Lord, Turnbull – told the inquiry that Mr Blair …

“… wanted a step change in the work on delivery and reform, which I hope I managed to give him. … You have to make choices as to where you make your effort, and I think the policy I followed was not to take an issue over from someone to whom it was delegated simply because it was big and important, but you have to make a judgement as to whether it is being handled competently, whether that particular part is, in a sense, under pressure, whether you think they are getting it wrong in some sense, or they are missing certain important things.”

Chilcot noted, however, that:

“The responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary to ensure that members of Cabinet are fully engaged in ways that allow them to accept collective responsibility and to meet their departmental obligations nevertheless remains.”


Martin Stanley

14 September 2016


Why do politicians sometimes ignore scientific advice?

This blog was first published in March 2015 by Manchester University’s Whitehall Watch

Respected scientist Sir Paul Nurse recently expressed his distress that politicians sometimes “ignore” scientific evidence. Here is a slightly different take on the issue from the perspective of a recent senior civil servant.

At one level, of course, I agree with Sir Paul. I can’t prove it but I suspect that many if not most Ministers would (if they could) legalise cannabis and ecstasy, and sharply increase the cost of all alcoholic drinks. Many would also be tempted to ban dangerous sports – especially for children – including horse-riding, rugby and boxing. The fact that they do not do so upsets Sir Paul who feels “distressed” when scientists find clear evidence that contributes to a particular issue – such as drugs policy – only for politicians to ignore it “because they don’t think it will play well with the public”. “It indicates a total lack of leadership on the politicians’ part,” he told BBC Newsnight’s Evan Davis. “They have the evidence in front of them but they sometimes are cowardly about using their intelligence and using our evidence to come to a leadership decision.”

There are two problems with this analysis. The first is that leaders cannot lead unless their followers remain willing to follow them, and it is far from clear that the great British public would willingly accept many of the decisions that seem so obviously correct to Sir Paul. Sir William Harcourt’s comment that “The Minister exists to tell the Civil Servant what the Public will not stand” remains as true as it ever was.

The second problem is that the public’s risk appetite depends very much on the non-scientific context within which the risk is taken. We all dread dying in an airplane accident much more than we fear dying in a car accident, which is why apparently disproportionate resource is devoted to aviation safety. We more readily accept risks that we can control (horse-riding. rock-climbing) than risks imposed on us by others (polluters). And we certainly don’t like risks that might damage our children and future generations, which is one reason why nuclear power is so much more closely regulated than coal mining. (See for a longer discussion of this subject.)

Sir Paul’s comments bring to mind those of Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who said that taking ecstasy was no worse than the risks associated with “Equine Addiction Syndrome”, a term he invented to describe people’s addiction to horse-riding which causes 10 deaths and more than 100 road traffic accidents a year. This caused a fuss that was tolerated by Ministers. But then, in October 2009, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published a lecture by Professor Nutt and quoted the Centre’s Director as saying that “Professor Nutt’s briefing gives us an insight into what drugs policy might look like if it was based on the research evidence, rather than political posturing and moralistic positioning”. This was a step too far for the Home Secretary who promptly sacked the professor, believing that Professor Nutt had gone beyond giving advice and had begun to campaign on an essentially political issue. In a letter to The Guardian he noted that “There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction”.

Sir Paul should not therefore have accused Ministers of ‘ignoring’ science or of cowardice or lacking leadership. This is bound to make them defensive. A much more positive approach would have been to recognise that Ministers and scientists are on the same side in wanting the public (and in particular the media) to understand the science underlying these difficult policy areas, so that attitude-changing discussion can take place. It is interesting, for instance, to note that three government departments have come together with industry to prepare an Agri-Tech strategy which implicitly (though not very explicitly) involves support for GM food, another supposed hazard which has diminished under scientific scrutiny. The main obstacle to the development of GM technology now lies outside the UK, and elsewhere in the EU. But that is another story …

Speaking Truth unto … Prime Minister Trump?

It is well accepted, in the UK at least, that powerful men and women should be advised by those who are willing to ‘speak truth unto power’. It is also well recognised that senior officials – and senior members of the armed forces – and senior executives – need to offer their advice in way, and adopting a tone, that is best designed to ensure that the advice is accepted.

But what does this mean in practice? There is some advice available for those lucky enough to work with politicians who will listen to advice, even if they don’t always agree with it or accept it. Recent examples include Christopher Jary’s Working with Ministers, and How to be a Minister written jointly by ex-Minister John Hutton and ex-Permanent Secretary Leigh Lewis. But what advice might be given to those working with a politician with a more difficult personality?

This question came strongly to mind when I read Professor Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence in which he argues that many military blunders may be attributed to the authoritarian psychology of certain military leaders – and to the failure of their subordinates to challenge them effectively (or at all). He defines authoritarians as those who …

are less likely to …

be able to put themselves in others’ shoes, give full credit to an opponent’s ability (likely calling them stupid, feeble and/or evil), accept criticism from below, accept blame, experiment, reconnoitre, learn from their own mistakes, accept information or advice which challenges their beliefs and assumptions, and be warm and sympathetic.

and are more likely to …

have strong egos, be vain (but lack true self-confidence), blame a subordinate, be anti-intellectual, emphasise the importance of obedience and loyalty, take silence as consent, and dislike those who are ‘odd’ or ‘different’ – including those from a different social, educational and ethnic background
There are probably very few senior politicians who display absolutely all of these traits, and none who are totally free of all of them. Accepting blame (as distinct from changing one’s mind) does after all appear equivalent to committing political suicide. But it is not hard to think of a good number of strong characters who would score pretty highly in any test of authoritarianism. Donald Trump for a start, but maybe also Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage? Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would also score well, I imagine.

It is perhaps relevant that a recent article noted that authoritarianism amongst American voters correlates strongly with support for Mr Trump. This is because, it is claimed, people who score high in authoritarianism value conformity and, when feeling threatened, turn to strong leaders who promise to do whatever is necessary “to protect them from outsiders and the changes they fear … Trump in turn embodies the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive”.

My question is, therefore, what advice would you give to senior officials who might be asked to work closely with an authoritarian Prime Minister or Cabinet Minister? Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries famously got off to a bad start with Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and failed to establish an effective working relationship with Gordon Brown in either the Treasury or No.10. All three seem to have preferred to work with those who did not ‘push back’ too hard – ‘courtiers’ even. And it is hard to read The Blunders of our Governments or Conundrum – Why Every Government Gets Things Wrong without wondering whether very senior officials could not have done more to persuade their political masters and mistresses to take more sensible decisions. If not, then what were we employing them for?

So – go on then – imagine that you are lucky enough to be appointed Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff or Cabinet Secretary. You are in pole position to stop him making some very serious errors. How would you set about persuading him to listen to you and maybe change his mind?

Martin Stanley

1. .
2. According to Vox, “Authoritarians are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump – and will persist as a force in American politics … we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians.”
3. Anthony King & Ivor Crewe
4. Richard Bacon & Christopher Hope


This blog was first published by Civil Service World

Martin is the author of How to be a Civil Servant whose third edition was published in2016.

Are Senior Officials Now Serving Individual Ministers, not the Government?

A fascinating and worrying IfG Report is published today:

In [some] departments, policy development is sometimes carried out solely for one party (most often the party of the secretary of state), occasionally with explicit requests not to include the other side in discussions or on distribution lists. There is a lack of clarity in such circumstances about whether policy is being developed for the Government, or for one party. … In one case a secretary of state instructed officials not to speak to ‘the other party’s’ special advisers. In another, the secretary of state asked officials to keep junior ministers out of the loop because of concerns they would pass on sensitive information to their party leader. This can put officials, working for a minister on a particular portfolio, but acting on instructions from above, in an impossible situation.”

This looks at first like a clear breach of the Armstrong Memorandum which says that:  “The Civil Service serves the Government of the day as a whole, that is to say Her Majesty’s Ministers collectively, and the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service.”  On the other hand, the Memorandum goes on to say that “The duty of the individual civil servant is first and foremost to the Minister of the Crown who is in charge of the Department in which he or she is serving.”  And the IfG points out that  “The default approach of Whitehall is to avoid formalisation of rules, and to rely on personal relationships and individual good judgement to respond to pressures as they occur. This is a model of government based on the principle of constructive ambiguity, which may have worked in the context of a single-party government, but is under serious strain in the context of coalition, particularly as the focus shifts to the election.”

It is certainly very worrying that senior officials are being asked by some Ministers to hide their work from other Ministers.  Wouldn’t it be better if it were clear that this is not allowed?

The IfG Report can be found here.  Standard advice for civil servants in the run up to a general election is here.

More policy making ‘on the hoof’ from Francis Maude?

Many politicians, academics, civil servants and others will be interested to read Francis Maude’s latest thoughts, as reported in Monday’s FT.  He suggests that a new requirement (that civil servants in charge of big projects should account directly to parliament) would “toughen the relationship with ministers”.   This would be a significant departure from the longstanding principle that civil servants are accountable to ministers and only ministers to parliament, but Mr Maude argues that it would give officials a greater incentive to challenge developments they believed were wrong.  According to the FT, he said: “If you have [a senior official] who knows that he or she is going to be hauled up in front of select committees and interrogated . . . then I think you’re much more likely to have what is a very healthy thing in our system which is push-back. . . There’s a great phrase ‘speaking truth unto power’ and it’s very important – it doesn’t happen enough.”  He also said that senior civil servants in charge of projects should tell ministers bluntly if they felt they were being misdirected and insist on a formal “letter of direction” to show that they had raised their objections. If they did not, they should be accountable for failings on their watch.

This is another example of far-reaching and maybe sensible change being mooted without any serious and open discussion of the context and the consequences.  The suggestion that there should be more push-back is no doubt spot-on but it needs to be weighed against the recent Civil Service World survey which concluded that “Just 9% of civil servants believe that ministers and senior managers openly encourage challenge, debate and reporting of operational problems”.  

And a request by an official for a formal a letter of direction from a minister has always been seen as the nuclear option, as it indicates serious disagreement between officials and their political masters over the propriety of the decision.  In therefore has to be reported in the department’s annual report and accounts, and disclosed to the Public Accounts Committee.  Do Mr Maude’s colleagues really want more of such letters?




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