Why I left the Civil Service: Thatcher, trust and democracy

A former economic civil servant tells her story of working under Thatcher. The change of culture in Whitehall and the loss of trust, she says, must now be undone.

Judith Marquand
17 April 2013

In the many thought-provoking articles published by openDemocracy since the death of Thatcher, only the piece by Nick Pearce of the think-tank IPPR even mentioned the New Public Management. The damage inflicted by Thatcher on the fabric of British society in part begins here, but it goes far deeper than this.

Let me start with a small personal story. In the 1980s I was an economic civil servant, responsible at one stage for a branch of more than 20 assorted social scientists (including economists). After Thatcher's assault on social science in general, a social science branch of this size within the Civil Service was only possible because we were not part of Whitehall, but at arms length in the Manpower Services Commission. Nonetheless, we had to obey the rules of the Whitehall machine. One year, I was granted a sum of money to distribute among those of my command who had performed best. This performance bonus was supposed to incentivise them. It remained unclear whether it was intended to incentivise those who were deemed good performers, or the others who might be energised to emulate them. In any case, my whole branch worked as a team and I used considerable effort to maintain this team spirit. So, with their enthusiastic concurrence, I decided to distribute the performance bonus equally among them. This decision was firmly countermanded from further up the chain; I was told in no uncertain terms that it ran counter to the whole intention of the performance bonus and was not permissible. 

This, of course, is only one small example of the change of culture within the Civil Service. We were no longer expected to examine all sides of a case and 'to speak truth to power'. Instead, we were required to provide briefs of no more than 2 sides of paper – at the most – which supported whatever line ministers had already decided to take. Now the civil service is – or was – full of professionals. These scientists, engineers, doctors and social scientists had extensive acquaintance with the subject matter of their particular areas and with the relevant scientific community outside the civil service. Admittedly some of them were unduly complacent, but all of them had knowledge of their subject areas which needed to be taken into account. 

The social scientists within universities as well as within the civil service had a particularly difficult time under Thatcher. Her view that 'there is no such thing as society' allowed savage cuts in the funding of social science. Worse still, it led to savage cuts in intermediate institutions, wherever these were publicly funded. (And since many intermediate institutions help to provide public goods, public funding is important if they are to flourish.) She 'hollowed-out' local government and forced it to close many of the services it provided, thus removing the main links for most citizens with the public authorities most relevant – and nearest – to them. Schools lost most of their Local Authority support. 

Now there were many things wrong with British society in the 1970s. The degree of trust had in fact been declining since the 1950s. But Thatcher accelerated its decline. Individuals are not only consumers; they are also citizens. Thatcher greatly increased their power as the former, particularly as homeowners through the 'right to buy', but she greatly diminished their power as citizens. The removal of intermediate institutions, whether public institutions or as levels of management in organisations of any kind, reduces the opportunity for personal interaction which lies at the heart of trust, of individual satisfaction, and of the possibility of empirically-based improvements in policies of many kinds. Instead, we have only economic policies and welfare policies based on doctrine. 

Re-building citizenship will be a challenging task. It requires the re-building of processes, without undue fear of their possible outcomes. It requires the willingness to draw lessons from some of our European partners. It requires the vision of an open, democratic society. 

It took 30 years for Thatcher and Blair to destroy so much of the fabric of British society. Let us pray that future governments will have the imagination and the determination to restore it more quickly than this.

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