In praise of special advisers

Special advisers have never exactly been viewed with affection. In the first episode of Yes Minister, Jim Hacker arrives in the Department for Administrative Affairs for the first time accompanied by his special adviser, but before they even reach his office, the adviser is bundled off unceremoniously into a cupboard. Oh, how we laughed.

We also laughed long and hard at the absurdities of Malcolm Tucker et al in The Thick of It. As a former special adviser myself across six different Whitehall departments I thought it was hilarious. On occasions, some of the scenarios were eerily familiar in spirit, if not in fact.

Of course, the truth is much more mundane. Real special advisers are not out of central casting, nor are they all in the mould of Alistair Campbell, Charlie Whelan or Andy Coulson. Clare Short, who had two special advisers of her own, famously described them as the “people who live in the dark”. I took that as a compliment, as special advisers should usually be invisible to the public.

But they also are serious and conscientious providers of political, policy and communications support to ministers. And with the exception of the occasional Sir Humphrey, they are welcomed by civil servants. They are a valuable means for handling the more overtly political aspects of modern government and can help guide, though not instruct, civil servants on a minister’s thinking. As Sir John Elvidge former permanent secretary of the Scottish Executive, quoted in Civil Service Live Network, put it: “special advisers who genuinely know the minds of their ministers – rather than those who ascribe their own thoughts to a minister – are invaluable, because ministerial time is one of the scarcest commodities.”

The origins of the special adviser role are opaque but arguably started to take form during Harold Wilson’s first premiership in the 1960s. He appointed Marcia Williams as his political secretary and complained later how the civil servants tried to marginalise her and keep her in an office far from his. No wonder she was rumoured to have been a source for some of the scenes from Yes Minister. He also sought independent advice on the economy from two Hungarian émigrés, Nicholas Kaldor and Tommy Balogh – referred to unaffectionately by civil servants at the time as Buda and Pest.

Gradually the use of special advisers became more established with codes of conduct and formal appointment as temporary civil servants. Their numbers grew steadily under the Major, Blair and Brown premierships. Although there was some carping at this, they are now a fact of political life.

David Cameron pledged opportunistically to reduce the number of special advisers but now that he is in government he may appreciate that they have their uses after all. He has now had to face this reality and sanction the appointment of an additional seven to serve junior Liberal Democrat ministers. This is another evolution, as previously they only served Cabinet ministers.

Perhaps now we can have a more mature discussion on the role and number of special advisers. If No 10 had had a stronger team of political and policy advisers, it might have avoided some of the damaging retreats and uncertainties on issues like NHS reform, sentencing policy and the stewardship of public forests. We may be a long way from the US where an incoming President brings in a top echelon of 2,000 appointees to run the government, but our system of government and policy making might just benefit from a little more light being shed on its inner workings.

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