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Omnishambles? Time to wind back to the 1970s

Since the 1970s, Number 10 Downing Street and the adjacent Cabinet Office have, in different ways at different times, hosted units performing two core functions: the provision of political policy advice to the prime minister and strategic, cross-cutting policy development. The first of these has been embodied in the Number 10 Policy Unit since Harold Wilson’s 1974–1976 government took office. The second was undertaken by the Central Policy Review Staff in the 1970s and early 1980s, and then again by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit between 2001 and 2010. David Cameron is the first prime minister since Harold Wilson to govern without a Policy Unit employing politically-appointed policy experts or any kind of civil service staff whose task is to think strategically for Whitehall.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, he has been criticised both for lacking strong political direction by Conservative MPs and activists, and more damningly, for leading a government without a strategy by the Public Administration Committee.

Both claims can be exaggerated but each contains a kernel of truth. It is curious, to say the least, that the prime minister should not have had a cadre of political policy advisers to take into Number 10. Although the first head of his Policy Unit, James O’Shaughnessy, was a Conservative staffer, his tenure was relatively short-lived, and now the unit is made up of career civil servants. They are all highly capable individuals, but they are constitutionally prohibited from offering partisan advice or assisting the prime minister with party business. Nor are they trained, by experience or conviction, to think politically.  This means that the prime minister does not routinely receive political advice on issues of policy, for example on proposed legislation, budget measures, speeches and departmental announcements. This is all core business for the Number 10 Policy Unit.

The unit has not always been influential, of course. It thrived under its first head, Bernard (now Lord) Donoughue, when it consisted of such luminaries as Gavyn Davies, David Lipsey, David Piachaud and Andrew Graham, but became less influential as the Callaghan government drew to an end. It was at its best in the Thatcher era under the leadership of John Redwood, when David Willetts and Oliver Letwin earned their spurs in it, but waned in her final five years. Sarah Hogg was a highly influential head of the unit for John Major, while it reached the height of its powers under David Miliband and Andrew Adonis in the New Labour years. A combination of historical circumstances and the proximity or otherwise of the unit’s head to the prime minister explain how it waxes and wanes. In each era, however, it has always had political appointees in it – until now.

In contrast, the strategic function in the centre of Whitehall has not been consistently embodied in a single unit. A Central Policy Review Staff was created during Heath’s government but it had a chequered history and was undermined by damaging leaks about its work. It was eventually abolished by Margaret Thatcher.

Its successor, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit was created in Tony Blair’s second term from the embryo of the Performance and Innovation Unit, the brainchild of Geoff Mulgan, who became its first head. Its remit was to conduct long-term, cross-cutting thinking on policy issues of strategic importance to the UK. It was essentially the strategic brain of Whitehall.

It was staffed with a mix of high-flying civil servants and outsiders recruited into the civil service, sometimes on a project-by-project basis. It tended to work with departments, rather than against them, without allowing itself to be captured by the prevailing wisdom or interests of particular ministries. Its power rested on the twin pillars of its proximity to the prime minister and the strength of its research and policymaking. Unlike its forerunner, it survived some embarrassing leaks of its work and became widely admired by other Anglo-sphere governments. It survived the transition from Blair to Brown well, and was locked into the Number 10 structure through a board that commissioned its projects chaired by the Number 10 permanent secretary, Jeremy Heywood.

As the 2010 general election approached, however, the Number 10 operation focused increasingly on political decisions and policy development for the Labour manifesto, so the Strategy Unit’s role in supporting the prime minister correspondingly diminished. After the Coalition government was formed it was abolished. Many of its civil servants left Whitehall. Others were scattered around Number 10 and the Cabinet Office.

This was a mistake. Successful government requires strategic thinking at the centre, even during periods of crisis management. The Treasury contains some of that capability, particularly when the chancellor is strong and carries authority in Whitehall. But the prime minister needs it too. It cannot be left to departments, as some recent cabinet secretaries have believed, because the strategic direction of a government can only be set by a prime minister. Conviction and purpose endow a prime minister with direction and drive, but the capacity to apply these to specific fields of policy requires support from dedicated officials. This is what the Strategy Unit provided to David Cameron’s predecessors, and by abolishing it he denuded himself of something important. Indeed, you might argue that a Conservative leader cut from the cloth of Baldwin and Heath, rather than Peel and Thatcher, is in more need, not less, of strategic support.

The configuration of the Number 10 operation, and its effectiveness, change with each prime minister. The civil service provides continuity, particularly in the Private Office, to ensure that transitions between prime ministers are handled smoothly, but the balance of power within Number 10, and how well it relates to parliament and Whitehall, vary as individuals come and go. This makes the argument for institutional stability on the core functions of strategic policymaking and political policy advice more convincing. Although the 1970s are often considered a dysfunctional decade in the recent history of British government, the creation of the Policy Unit and the Central Policy Review Staff by the Wilson and Heath governments represented institutional innovations whose worth endured. It is a history lesson David Cameron would do well to learn.

This piece appears in a special House magazine supplement on Number 10.

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