Tony Benn found that without the help of officials, having radical ideas as a minister didn’t get him very far. On the day the veteran MP is laid to rest, Dave Richards and Martin Smith reflect on their interviews with Benn, his Cabinet colleagues and officials.
Obituaries of Tony Benn considered his roles as campaigner, Labour Party influencer and diary writer. They said little about his experience as a Cabinet minister, where he arguably missed his chance to make a bigger impact on national policy.
During the 1974/9 Labour administration, Benn served as Secretary of State for Industry (1974/5) and Energy (1975/9), where he was committed to implementing Labour’s manifesto. Officials and political opponents stopped him.
For officials, loyalty to the Prime Minister trumped that to their departmental minister. Benn refused to play by the ‘rules of the Whitehall game’, allowing officials to say they acted correctly in blocking him.
Benn became convinced the Civil Service was opposing his attempt to implement manifesto commitments, leading to conflict between the minister and his officials. His Permanent Secretary at Industry, Anthony Part, said at an early stage: “I take it you are not going to implement the manifesto”. Benn then circulated the manifesto to all civil servants and told them: “That’s what we have been elected to do.”
Benn broke three cardinal rules of the Whitehall culture. He did not trust his officials. He did not accept officials’ interpretation of the ‘facts’, believing officials were committed to the political ‘consensus’ above all else. And he looked to alternative sources of advice, from trade unions and his special advisors Frances Morrell and Francis Cripps.
Officials at the Department of Industry considered Benn’s approach to be “completely irrational”. For Whitehall, only officials could be policy advisors. In the last 30 years that approach has been increasingly challenged and officials no longer claim a monopoly on policy advice. At the time, officials saw the approach as “extraordinary”.
The conflict between minister and officials worsened to the point where a paper from the Permanent Secretary diverged from Benn’s views and he obtained a redraft from his special advisors. “Then my Permanent Secretary went round all the other Permanent Secretaries to try to get it stopped,” said Benn.
Benn made things more difficult with two contradictory elements in his interpretation of the ministerial rules. He believed he was there to implement party policy and so his legitimacy derived not from Parliament or the Cabinet, but from the Party and the manifesto. Yet he retained the constitutional notion of ministerial authority and responsibility: he believed officials should do what he told them to do.
Generally, officials are culturally bound to be loyal. But loyalty is offered in exchange for trust and involvement. Because Benn excluded and distrusted his officials, and did not abide by their rules, they withdrew that loyalty.
A former Industry official, who became a very senior Whitehall official, observed: “Other ideological ministers I’ve worked with…[Norman] Tebbit, [Nicholas] Ridley, [Keith] Joseph, were sophisticated enough to see that bureaucrats are not against ministers. And that bureaucrats, when taken into confidence and trusted, will do their damnedest to deliver a radical programme.” Benn, arguably, threw away his opportunity for radical reform by working against, rather than with, his civil servants.
Benn had similar problems with the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Officials argued that Benn did not follow policy collectively agreed by colleagues. They then justified their disloyalty to Benn as loyalty to government as a whole, citing ‘collective responsibility’.
Anthony Part argued: “He worked inside the Department very much against his colleagues and against Harold Wilson.” A former Cabinet colleague claimed: “Benn had one or two allies in the Cabinet, but he was largely isolated. His contributions to Cabinet were always nonsense, but they did give us a good laugh.” Another said his contribution had no clout in Cabinet: “…none at all”.
Merlyn Rees observed of Denis Healey: “Denis would sit there and Tony would go on and Denis’s view was a little bit like that of Enoch [Powell], that the logic was good but the conclusions were balls. Denis would say ‘And now here comes the bullshit’.”
Without Prime Ministerial authority, Benn was unable to bring his officials into line. One official explained: “Benn was not thwarted exactly. He was subjected to a good deal of advice which he found unwelcome. The job of the Civil Service is, as best it can, to point out the realities of the situation to ministers.”
Constitutionally, ministers decide. But Benn’s experience shows that ministers cannot make policy without the support of officials. Benn undermined the relationships of dependence which officials saw as crucial to their professional integrity and self-image.
Tony Benn’s time in government revealed how a minister can be isolated within Whitehall without the relationships to influence policy. Benn had radical ideas – but as a Cabinet minister he proved strategically naive in the face of bureaucratic resistance.
- A longer version of this blog is published at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/40581