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SPADs or blob?

I spent yesterday evening at a dinner listening to a speaker whose job is to advise the Government on foreign policy.

Lots that came up was surprising. For a start, the question of what Scottish independence might mean is not something that people have been asked to look at. (By the by, I am always amused how people often say that a yes vote “would ensure a Tory government in perpetuity”. In fact, in only one election would the removal of Scottish seats from calculations have delivered a Conservative majority where one would not otherwise have existed – the one in 2010.)

But more interesting than that was the next question, about the relevance of the first Gulf War to current issues in the Middle East. The answer, although I paraphrase sightly, was that none of the special advisers came in before 2001, and there was no historical memory going back before that.

I don’t want to sound like an old croak, and I  realise that the last century is…. well, just that. But if ever a statement made me question the debate around the respective merits of SPADs and the Civil Service, it seemed to me that this was it.

I get it that it’s annoying that the Civil Service is a bit of a blob: I can understand why it is hard to work with, and can seem obstructive to Governments of both colours in certain circumstances.  In theory, SPADs are there to do the same job as the Civil Service before them, but without being a drag on process; but in reality, as is shown by the sacking of the three that sat in the Department of Education the moment Nicky Morgan came in, SPADs are attached to Ministers. What that means is that effectively – like Ministers – they learn on the job, unlike advisers who work their way up Government departments over the period of a career.

I am sure someone in Government will jump up and declare that I’m missing a point somewhere. It seems unlikely that the people who play the leading advisory roles know nothing about what happened before 9/11, or the historical context in which anything that happens today is taking place. But that was certainly the suggestion made at dinner.

Maybe there’s still a role for the traditional Civil Servant after all!

Posted in Politics.

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