openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Thank God for Dominic Cummings?

Will Team Johnson really ‘shake up’ Whitehall? Or – as events this week suggest – are they more likely to adopt its worst, most secretive tricks?

Richard Norton-Taylor
8 February 2020
Dominic Cummings, senior aide to the Prime Minister, leaving Downing Street, September 2019
Dominic Cummings, senior aide to the Prime Minister, leaving Downing Street, September 2019
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Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images

The prime minister’s senior adviser and “enforcer”, Dominic Cummings, says he wants what amounts to a cultural revolution in Whitehall. If by welcoming what he called “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” in a provocative podcast early this year, he meant risk-takers, can-doers, people who understand the digital world and information technology, Whitehall certainly needs them. The mandarins of the permanent government need shaking up.

For far too long, they have been shielded from the rigours of the outside world, protected by a formidable array of weapons, notably the Official Secrets Act, a measure designed to deter whistle-blowers as much as potential spies.

But Whitehall’s arsenal includes much more subtle weapons than the criminal law. One such weapon is deployed with such little effort it can be easily overlooked. It is the use of language, a craft honed over many decades and embedded deep in Whitehall subculture. It is a weapon often used against MPs. As the late Sir Patrick Nairne, a widely respected mandarin, was honest enough to admit: “The secrecy culture of Whitehall is essentially a product of British parliamentary democracy; economy with the truth is the essence of a professional reply to a parliamentary question”.

Being economical with the truth is what the former cabinet secretary, Sir Robert (now Lord) Armstrong, famously admitted to when questioned during the government’s attempt to suppress, Spycatcher, the memoirs of the former MI5 officer, Peter Wright. Civil servants are careful not to commit to “a direct lie”, as Sir Clive Whitmore, Margaret Thatcher’s principal private secretary, once put it, but to give a “misleading impression”, as Armstrong explained in the Spycatcher case.

Whitehall officials can even mislead themselves, as they told the Scott Inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq inquiry. As Ian McDonald, the Ministry of Defence spokesman during the Falklands war but later involved in promoting arms exporters, told Scott: “Truth is a very difficult concept”.

Civil servants have developed the careful use of language into a fine craft. It is essential in Whitehall to avoid making commitments and to put off decisions. (The power of delay should never be underestimated.) It is better when challenged about a policy to say it is “under review”. Awkward problems are dealt with on a “case by case” basis, conveniently leaving the government a way out. “I hear what you say”, is one well-honed response, usefully combining the absence of commitment with the unspoken message to shut up. Euphemism is a useful, albeit soft, weapon to deploy.

It is all part of the attempt to protect a shared comfort zone. Sir Ian (later Lord) Bancroft, head of the civil service under Margaret Thatcher, once described how much he enjoyed Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. “I actually believe as I get older that life is very much like the Anthony Powell novels in that you keep meeting the same people over and over again…”. And, he might have added, you keep on meeting them over and over again even after you have left the civil service. The number of officials (and senior military figures) who join private companies soon after they retire from public office in the so-called “revolving doors” syndrome has increased significantly over recent years, perpetuating a lobby system straddling the public and private sectors behind the scenes.

Wierdos in Whitehall? Or just more control freaks?

Cummings faces an uphill struggle. Thatcher’s attempt to radically reform Whitehall by bringing in people from business and political advisers had limited success in opening it up. Similarly Tony Blair, who complained about “the scars on my back” in his attempts to reform the civil service. This is despite the fact that Thatcher and Blair had big parliamentary majorities, much like Johnson.

But if he wins where Thatcher and Blair failed, and the Sir Humphreys of this world are truly put on the back foot, Cummings’ Whitehall revolution is most unlikely to extend to more open government. For those now enjoying power in Downing Street and elsewhere in Whitehall – even, or especially, minister’s political advisers – that would be too much of a risk.

Brexit may mean “taking back control” from Brussels. But where will it go? Not to those members of the public who enthusiastically waved their Union Jacks. Not even to MPs. Johnson and his ministers have made it clear they have had enough of the House of Commons ‘interfering’. MPs will not get much of a look-in, let alone influence, in the negotiations on a future deal with the EU (or Britain’s commercial and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world).

Despite all the populist rhetoric coming out of Downing Street, Whitehall’s culture of secrecy, its control of information, will, if anything, be strengthened. Witness its recent attempts to exclude those journalists it disapproves of from official media briefings.

MPs, just like the public, rely on the media to be informed and to hold ministers to account in parliament. MPs have one weapon in their arsenal, the vote. But this weapon is severely blunted when the government has such a large majority. Whitehall (by which I include ministers’ political advisers as well as civil servants) has so many weapons at its disposal.

Ironically, just as the historic democratic deficit of EU institutions is lifting, with the European parliament increasing its power and influence, Whitehall is keeping the shutters even more firmly down. The age-old British disease of official secrecy seems likely to make a mockery of claims about “taking back control”.

Richard Norton-Taylor is the author of The State of Secrecy, published by IB Tauris, an imprint of Bloomsbury.

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