It is a brave government that even considers shaking up its bureaucracy. Not only do the upper echelons of the Civil Service cultivate a very particular sense of self-esteem, but they are bound by an esprit de corps that ministers challenge at their peril. The very hint of an end to permanent appointments or a substantial increase in the number of political appointees will face resistance of the most single-minded and sophisticated kind.
Nor is it hard to defend the Civil Service as currently constituted. Since forever, or so it seems, it has been regarded as setting the gold standard for government administration around the world. Among the strands contributing to that reputation are unimpeachable integrity, utter discretion, and the social polish and breadth of knowledge associated with an elite – probably Oxbridge – education.
But the chief reason, it is always said, why the Civil Service is so envied is the consistency that stems from its political impartiality. The job of a civil servant is to tender advice about implementing policies, based on practicalities, legality and likely repercussions. The idea is that ministers should have all the pertinent facts before they take the political decision – which is theirs, and theirs alone. Because the civil servant has no political, or financial, interest in the outcome, so the argument continues, the minister receives the best and most authoritative advice.