The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Men Who Run Britain

Category: Politics

In Britain the result of the election usually becomes clear early on Friday morning, and by Friday afternoon the new Prime Minister is calling at the Palace and moving into Downing Street.

The fact that many Cabinet Ministers now live “above the shop’’ makes the transition more fierce, for overnight they lose not only their office but their house. The residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at Number 11, Downing Street, has only one door, so that the change is visible to any passers-by: out.of that door must come the old Chancellor, his family,~trunks, packing cases,and empty bottles. But behind this change there is a heavy fly:wheeI’thaf keeps its momentum and survives any transition: the great machine of the permanent Civil Service.

Only about a hundred men change their offices in White-hall after the election (another hundred may become parliamentary private secretaries with a loose relationship with their office). In the United States thousands change their jobs; in France, which has an equally powerful permanent bureaucracy, a new Minister can bring with him his own cabinet of political friends to help him run his department. But in Britain even the Minister’s private secretary — his most intimate confidant — will stay to serve his new master, abandoning overnight the loyalties and policies of his predecessor.

When new Ministers arrive, the officials are studiously friendly and helpful, telling them most things they want to know, and all the arguments for or against any decision that has been put forward. But they will never tell them the secrets of the previous Government’s policy decisions, or the personal details of who said what to whom. The filing cabinets remain firmly guarded by the civil servants, with combination locks.

The civil servants are very conscious of the nature of their bargain with the politicians. As one permanent secretary put it: “We say to them, in effect, that their dirty linen is safe with us. If wecan’t promise them that, then they’ll take the dirty linen somewhere else.’’

The civil servants know that the politicians know that the civil servants know more than they; even if they lean over backwards not to take advantage of it, the.politicians are abound to be resefitful. A special awk wardyess is apparent at those occasions, like embassy receptions, where civil servants and: politigians of both parties are invited together. The discarded leaders have to watch the men who only a few days before were their closest colleagues, chatting and smiling with the enemy, looking just as friendly and confidential as ever they were to them.

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