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First of all, the civil service has been radically reorganized on business lines, following the doctrines of the ‘new public management’. As many activities as possible have been transferred out of government departments into ‘executive agencies’, leaving a reduced policy-related higher civil service at the top. The slimmed-down departments have then been further slimmed down to achieve ‘efficiency savings’, and required to ‘outsource’ more and more of their routine functions to private companies, starting with cleaning and continuing with information technology, accounting, estate management, personnel, and so on. Government buildings are sold and leased back from private companies. Sometimes individual public services, such as various prisons or schools, or even a whole local education authority, are directly outsourced to be run by private companies. 

But the role of those remaining at the top has changed too. Thatcher’s ministers made it clear that dispassionate advice and careful argument were out. When she took office and started taking an unprecedented interest (for a prime minister) in higher civil service promotions, the quality she looked for was a capacity for vigorous implementation of her ideas. Early on she got into an argument about industrial relations, about which she had strong opinions but was poorly informed, with Donald Derx, a capable and dedicated civil servant. She went on and on until Derx finally said: ‘Prime Minister, do you really want to know the facts?’ – and promptly ended his prospects of promotion. (14) As David Marquand says,

'… civil servants were no longer expected to tell the truth to power … In a phrase coined by Lord Bancroft, head of the civil service when Mrs Thatcher came to power, the ‘grovel count’ rose sharply. Those who could not bring themselves to grovel languished or left. Inevitably, those who grovelled internalized the crucial axioms of the government’s new ideology and statecraft.' (15)

(14) Jim Prior, A Balance of Power, quoted in Peter Hennessy, Whitehall, London: Fontana, 1990, pp. 633-34.

(15) Marquand, Decline, pp. 109-10. For a frankly embarrassing example of grovel see the speech given on September 10, 2003, by Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, to the PPP [Public Private Partnerships] Forum, which represents the new industrial sector conjured into being by the private financing of public services. Bourn was nominally employed by parliament to check public spending, but he sounded exactly like someone hoping for a job with one of the companies involved.

New Labour showed no inclination to change this. They too wanted civil servants to be as like businessmen as possible. Thatcher’s ministers told civil servants that they didn’t want ‘whingeing, analysis or integrity, that we must do as we are told and that they have several friends in the private sector who could do the job in a morning with one hand tied behind their back’. (16) Twenty-five years later Blair was telling them the same thing: ‘Rigour about performance must be at the heart of a leaner, more efficient civil service … A culture of decision-making by committee, while ensuring all possible viewpoints are considered, leads to unnecessary delays and increased cost’. (17) In 2005 the head of the civil service, Sir Andrew Turnbull, very much ‘on message’, told a conference that ‘the upper civil service had been forced to refocus its efforts from policy and management to an active role in the delivery of targets and key services. “The job is much more akin to being a chief executive officer than it has been in the past”, he admitted’. (18) 

(16) Hennessey, Whitehall, p. 633, quoting an unnamed senior civil servant.

(17) Guardian, 24 March 2004.

(18) Guardian, 3 February 2005.

But if senior civil servants are no longer primarily concerned with making policy, who is? Definitely not Royal Commissions. To ‘conviction’ politicians, ‘ensuring all possible viewpoints are considered’ seems a pointless diversion from where they are convinced the country should go, and neither Thatcher or Major appointed any Royal Commissions. In his first two years in office Blair appointed two, but rejected both their recommendations and never appointed another. (19) Even departmental enquiries, whose terms and proceedings can be much more closely controlled by ministers, have become relatively rare. (20) And policies emanating from party members and developed through internal party debates and compromises are definitely a thing of the past.

(19) The government adopted the minority report of the two pro-market members of the Sutherland Commission on Care of the Aged, appointed in 1997, and balked completely at dealing with the compromise recommendations of the Wakeham Commission on the reform of the House of Lords, appointed in 1999. 

(20) Forty-seven significant departmental enquiries were appointed in the 1970s, 24 in the 1980s, and 13 in the 1990s (David Butler and Gareth Butler, Twentieth-Century Century British Political Facts, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

One obvious alternative source of policy-making that corresponds to this situation is ‘think tanks’, and it is certainly true that think tanks see themselves as playing a crucial policy-making role. But British think tanks are not the sort of intellectual powerhouse familiar in the USA, with massive private foundation funding. (21) Most British think tanks have only a handful of staff and budgets of a few hundred thousand pounds, and competition between them for funding – which is predominantly corporate – tends to make most of them more anxious to have media coverage than a reputation for serious research. As Andrew Denham and Mark Garnett note, it was Demos, ‘the think tank with the flimsiest ideological attire’ and a taste for ‘back-of-an-envelope radicalism’ (it first won attention with a pamphlet attacking the powers of the Queen) that most appealed to New Labour in office, and its founding director Geoff Mulgan went on to become head of Tony Blair’s Cabinet Office Strategy Unit in 2003. (22) Even the more intellectually conventional Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), whose director Matthew Taylor became head of policy planning in the prime minister’s Policy Directorate in 2003, appears lightweight, at least by comparison with the think tanks founded in response to the depression of the 1930s. Those earlier think tanks were ‘at least … motivated by the hope that their findings would be educative, either for policy-makers or for the public. Even on a charitable view, this urge [now] seems lacking …’. (23)

(21) In the mid-1990s the Rand Corporation had 950 staff and a budget of $50-100 million, and four others had budgets of more than $10 million. The biggest British think tank, the Policy Studies Institute, with 54 staff and an annual income of $6.5 million in the late 1990s, was half as big as the fifth largest US think tank, the Heritage Foundation (see Andrew Denham and Mark Garnett, British Think Tanks and the Climate of Opinion, London: University College London Press 1988, p. 5).

(22) Ibid., p. 244.

(23) Ibid. 

The characteristic claim of every new think tank is that there is a need for ‘new ideas’ – which indeed there is, since so many of the important ones have been ruled out as unacceptable to the market, or politically risky. The trouble is that in the narrow range that remains there are few useful new ideas to be had. Catherine Bennett summed up the problem perfectly in 2002:

'If there is not already some sort of car boot sale where rejected or nearly-new thoughts can be bought, recycled, or exchanged for other unwanted policies, then it is high time one of the thinkers started one. With new tanks established almost daily, each one creating thousands of thoughts and papers, debates and alternative manifestos, each of which must be printed and circulated before it can be shelved, something has got to be done. Rubbish disposal experts estimate that getting rid of the IPPR’s thought mountain, alone, already accounts for a landfill site the size of Croydon. Over at the government’s Performance and Innovation Unit, John Birt’s dedicated crater is said to be visible from space.' (24) 

(24) ‘Think Tanks? No Thanks’, Guardian, 18 July 2002. Birt was a former Director General of the BBC brought into the prime minister’s office to do ‘blue skies thinking’ – initially, apparently, about transport, a field in which he had no expertise at all.

The common overestimation of the influence of think tanks is largely due to the fact that in the run-up to Thatcher’s accession to power in 1979, right-wing think tanks were an important source of neo-Conservative policy. From 1955 onwards the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) had served as a crucial base for ‘organic intellectuals’ of capitalism, sustaining and updating the strand of bourgeois thought that rejected the post-war compromise with social democracy. As Richard Cockett showed in his book Thinking the Unthinkable, when the contradictions of the post-war compromise finally brought it to an end, allowing Mrs Thatcher to capture the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975 and win power in 1979, her principal lieutenants at first drew heavily on the work of the IEA as well as the new Centre for Policy Studies, founded in 1974, and the Adam Smith Institute, founded in 1977. (25) It was the apparent influence of these three think tanks during those years that prompted the Labour leadership to create the IPPR in 1988, while they were in opposition, the Liberal Democrats (also in opposition) to create the Social Market Foundation in 1989; and the New Labour ‘modernizers’, on the eve of their capture of the party leadership, to found Demos in 1993. And these in turn prompted the formation of a rapidly proliferating medley of imitators, left and right, all striving for a place in the councils of power. To quote Bennett again: 

'Once you add the product of all the other think tanks – Demos, Civitas, the Centre for Policy Studies, Localis, Policy Exchange, Reform, the Adam Smith Institute, NLGN, Politeia, the Foreign Policy Centre, the Social Affairs Unit, Catalyst, the Fabian Society, the Social Market Foundation, the racy new Do Tank and others too numerous to list, you are forced to think the unthinkable: who needs them?' (26)

(25) Richard Cockett, Thinking the Unthinkable: Think Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983, London: HarperCollins, 1995. See 

also Radhika Desai, ‘Second-Hand Dealers in Ideas: Think-Tanks and Thatcherite Hegemony’, New Left Review, I/203, 1994.

(26) Bennett, ‘Think Tanks?’.

Who indeed? For the role played by the new right think tanks before Thatcher’s 1979 election victory could not be repeated after it. Once neoliberal globalization had been accomplished, the scope for radical policy-making was drastically narrowed. Think tanks, which are not privy to much essential information about the global market forces involved in the making of economic policy, and which also depend on maximizing publicity to keep their funding coming in, cannot contribute significantly to economic policy-making, least of all for a party in office. That work must be done by true experts. Nor are think tanks well suited to helping to make the ongoing social and cultural policy adjustments that changing global markets require. Pollsters and marketing experts are the key to success there. 

From time to time the government will toy with an obvious think-tank brain-child, such as ‘citizenship ceremonies’ for 18-year olds – usually to universal derision. ‘Baby bonds’ – a pet IPPR project for opening an account for every newborn infant into which the government would put some money, to give everyone some cash to do something with at 21 – did make it into Labour’s pre-election budget in 2005, though to no great effect, at least electorally. In spite of their claims to the contrary it is hard to credit think tanks with being the source of any significant New Labour policy initiative. (27) Ministers and opposition leaders do use sympathetic think tanks as sounding-boards, making speeches or writing pamphlets under their auspices – which suggests that think tanks may do more to make market-driven policies palatable to voters than to turn popular sentiment into practicable policies.

(27) See Stephen Court, ‘Think or Sink’, Public Finance, 11 October 2002.

Think tanks do serve as useful pools of political talent and ambition. On taking office in 1997 the Labour government doubled the number of minis ters’ ‘special advisers’ from 38 to 72, and many come from the think-tanks clustered around Westminster. Few of them bring relevant expertise from outside or carry intellectual weight inside. What most of them have is energy and a willingness to help work up solutions to whatever problems their minister is faced with. The key qualifications are loyalty and readiness to turn one’s hand to whatever task is needed. Peter Hyman, a former special adviser to Tony Blair, says that a few advisers have their own ideas, which may be different from those of their ministers. But the ‘vast majority’, he reassures us, ‘know they are there to serve the minister who employs them’. (28) Denham and Garnett concur, though with a different emphasis. ‘At worst’, they say, ‘the current wave of apparatchiks seem to act as comfort blankets for ministers who have discarded their former idealism’. (29)

(28) 1 Out of 10, London: Vintage, 2005, p. 71. 

(29) Denham and Garnett, ‘A “Hollowed Out” Tradition? British Think Tanks in the Twenty-First Century’, in Diane Stone and Mark Garnett, eds., Think Tank Traditions: Policy Research and the Politics of Ideas, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004, pp. 232-46.

This leaves two significant sources of policy that are well attested, though virtually un-researched. One is the prime minister’s ‘senior’ policy advisers. Thatcher appointed some prominent businessmen such as Sir Derek Rayner, a leading department store manager, and Sir Roy Griffiths, a leading supermarket manager, as special advisers to herself, and they were openly given more influence on policy than permanent civil servants. Blair followed suit, and under his personalized and highly-centralized system of government the influence of his senior policy advisers is very considerable – with sometimes disastrous results, since his choice of advisers has sometimes been lamentable. This was notoriously true of Andrew Adonis, his senior policy adviser on education, elevated to the peerage as Lord Adonis after the 2005 election and put in charge of schools policy in London. Adonis was one of the most widely-despised figures of Blair’s court, credited with having got a series of disastrous education policies adopted through having the ear of the prime minister. The message would come to the department of education that ‘Tony’s office’ was keen on ‘specialist schools’ or ‘city academies’, policies which were the brainchildren of Adonis, a journalist who had once written a book about social class in schools and was keen on private education. (Ted Wragg, a widely respected authority on education, and a comic script-writer on the side, created a fictional character called ‘Tony Zoffis’ whose ignorant prejudices successive education ministers had to swallow). (30) 

(30) On Adonis’ appointment as an unelected minister Francis Beckett catalogued the long series of disastrous educational policies for which he had been personally responsible: see ‘The Rise of Tony Zoffis’, Guardian, 11 May 2005.

Another example, in the other main field of social policy, health care, is Simon Stevens, mentioned earlier. Before his appointment as Blair’s senior health policy adviser he had been a middle-level hospital manager. He believed strongly in replacing the national health service with a market open to private providers, and this is what happened, in spite of the fact that this policy was never openly acknowledged, let alone put before the electorate in any of Labour’s manifestos, and in spite of its disastrous long-term implications. 

The other significant source of policy, and perhaps the most significant change in the operation of the state under the neoliberal policy regime, is the employment in key civil service posts of senior staff on secondment from the private sector. In 2004 the head of strategy in the Department of Health, for example, was on secondment from the management consultancy Price Waterhouse Coopers, a leading advocate of the privatization of public services, and especially health care. In some departments the circulation of personnel between the civil service and the private sector has become commonplace, and the delay required before civil servants can take up lucrative private sector posts, in which they can put their inside knowledge of government at the service of companies, has also been progressively shortened. This so-called ‘revolving door’ between the state and the private sector has long been notorious in the field of defence, which accounts for a huge share of public spending. (31) Now it is becoming more general throughout the higher civil service. (32)

(31) This has been documented for the post-Cold War years by the UK Campaign Against Arms Trade, in Who Calls the Shots? How Government-Corporate Collusion Drives Arms Exports, London: February, 2005. 

(32) Peter Oborne thinks the critical turning point in the erosion of the boundary between the state and the private sector came with the appointment of Sir Andrew Turnbull as Cabinet Secretary in 2002. According to him, Turnbull’s predecessor had fought hard to get a Civil Service Act passed, which would demarcate the boundary. ‘One of Turnbull’s first acts as Cabinet Secretary was to make it known that he did not believe that the Civil Service Act, and thus the protections it would have entrenched, were necessary’ (The Rise of Political Lying, London: The Free Press, 2005, p. 189). 

The chief focus of critics hitherto has tended to be on the conflicts of interest involved in this, especially the extent to which the prospect of lucrative private employment may influence the judgment of senior civil servants who should be guided solely by the public interest, and this is certainly a serious issue. (33) But the role played by private sector personnel seconded to policy-making roles in government today is more far-reaching. Faced with the demand to become business-like, and to pursue business-friendly policies, senior civil servants understandably reach out to business for help. What they get may not in fact be great expertise, but it always involves the importation of the general world-view inculcated in American business schools and disseminated through global management teams and financial markets. And with the collapse of the idea of a distinctively public domain goes the disappearance of any clear concept of the public interest as something different from and deeper than the collective interest of the corporations that dominate the economy. In effect, the corporate agenda is installed in the state; or to put it another way, public policy-making itself is ‘outsourced’.

(33) For examples of the effects of this see Allyson Pollock, NHS plc: The Privatization of our Healthcare, London: Verso, 2004, pp. 4-9.