The Men Who Run Britain
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 the door must come the old Chancellor, his family, trunks, packing cases and
empty bottles. The abruptness has obvious advantages. There is no awkward
hiatus, no period with no one properly in control . But behind this combination
of continuity and change there is a heavy flywheel that keeps its momentum and
survives any transition: the great machine of the permanent Civil Service.
Before any election there are secret talks between top civil servants and the
Opposition, in case they win: there were long talks before Wilson came to power
in 1964, and more talks with Heath in the months before June 1970. The civil
servants read up the pamphlets and the schemes for reforms, and make their
'contingency plans' - civil servants love their contingencies - against the day
of change. But the talks and plans are kept secret until after the election;
when the fact emerges that there have been talks, as it always does, the
betrayal seems all the greater.
The transition in Britain is more poignant, too, because of the relative
fewness of the politicians who move out and in. Only about a hundred men change
their offices in Whitehall after the election.
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.
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 we can't promise them that, then they'll
take the dirty linen somewhere else".
The fact that the top civil servants know so much more than their political
masters, and much that they must not disclose, adds a special piquancy to the
relationship. The civil servants know that the politicians know that the civil
servants know more that they.Th.Abrahamsen, R.Christophersen, R.Nessheim.