“To advise, warn and deliver”: Ken Clarke on the proper role of the civil service

The Conservative MP, Ken Clarke, is one of the most experienced MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons. His Ministerial career has spanned the Thatcher, Major and Cameron years, and has seen him occupy many of the seats around the Cabinet table, including Secretary of State for Health, Education, Justice, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Clarke’s recently published memoirs, Kind of Blue, are an engaging read and his comments on the changing nature of British politics over his long career are particularly illuminating.

One significant change since the Major years has been the expansion in the use of special political advisers (SPADs) as temporary civil servants brought in to support the role of the Minister. While the use of special advisers is not new their numbers grew considerably following Labour’s election in 1997, from 38 in the final year of the Major government to 70 in Labour’s first year. Despite criticisms from the Conservatives in opposition, the number of SPADs has remained high, with 92 in the Cameron government elected in 2015.

Ken Clarke is, perhaps not surprisingly, largely unimpressed with this development and offers the following defence of the long-established role of the permanent civil service:

I am a great believer in and defender of the non-political Civil Service, and a great fan of the many hard-working and talented civil servants with whom I have worked over a long career. I deeply object to the growth in the number of politically appointed advisers, who are exempt from the requirements on civil servants to be appointed on merit, to behave with impartiality and objectivity, and to act so as to retain the confidence of future governments of a different political complexion. Many of these so-called special advisers are not nearly so expert as they think they are and simply magnify the political faults of their ministers. Any suggestion that the top posts in the Civil Service should be politicized is, to me, deeply suspect. However, this fine British tradition of a non-political Civil Service only works so long as the civil servants accept that their role is not to determine policy, but rather to advise, warn and deliver. K. Clarke (2016), Kind of Blue: a political memoir, Macmillan, p.264.

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