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CIVIL SERVANTS, POLITICAL HISTORY, AND THE INTERPRETATION OF TRADITIONS*

  • DENNIS C. GRUBE (a1)

Abstract

A renewed interest in aspects of high politics among historians who subscribe to the ‘new political history’ has coincided with the embrace by some political scientists of interpretivism as a method for understanding how beliefs and traditions impact on British political life. In order to examine the potential synergies between these two developments, this article utilizes a form of ‘historical interpretivism’ to study the beliefs and actions of senior civil servants. In 1980, the British government released a Memorandum of Guidance for Officials Appearing before Select Committees – known ever since as the ‘Osmotherly’ rules – to help civil servants navigate the stresses of appearing before parliamentary committees. This article analyses the civil service files in the decade leading up to the publication of the Osmotherly rules to reveal how senior civil servants sought to reconcile their interpretations of Westminster tradition with the need to respond to the demands of the ‘open government’ agenda. The article argues that studying the narratives which guide the beliefs of individual civil servants and their political masters can help political historians and political scientists alike analyse the power of tradition in shaping political action.

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Corresponding author

University of Tasmania, Institute for the Study of Social Change, Private Bag 22, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 7001 Dennis.Grube@utas.edu.au

Footnotes

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*

I would like to thank my colleagues in the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania, and the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University, for supporting strong and collegial research environments. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewers for their very thoughtful, constructive, and considered opinions. This research was supported by funding from the Australian Research Council through its DECRA program (Grant No: DE130101131).

Footnotes

References

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1 See P. Hennessy, Whitehall (London, 1989), pp. 361–2.

2 Cabinet Office, Departmental evidence and response to select committees (London, 2005), URL: www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61192/guide-deptal-evidence-and-response-to-select-committees.pdf.

3 Minute from Michael Townley (Cabinet Office) to A. D. Gordon-Brown, 12 Jan. 1978, The National Archives (TNA), BA 17/1196.

4 For an excellent detailed account of the period, including the multiple attempts at civil service reform, see R. Lowe, The official history of the British civil service: reforming the civil service, i: The Fulton years, 1966–1981 (London and New York, NY, 2011).

5 See Bevir, M., ‘Public administration as storytelling’, Public Administration, 89 (2011), pp. 183–95, for a discussion of ‘webs of belief’ and how they function.

6 S. Pedersen, ‘What is political history now’, in D. Cannadine, ed., What is history now? (Basingstoke, 2002), p. 51.

7 For a discussion of the emergence of the ‘new political history’ and its possibilities, see Fielding, S., ‘Looking for the “new political history”’, Journal of Contemporary History, 42 (2007), pp. 515–24.

8 For discussions of historical institutionalism and the importance of agency, see Bell, S., ‘Do we really need a new “constructivist institutionalism” to explain institutional change?’, British Journal of Political Science, 41 (2011), pp. 883906 ; Pierson, P., ‘Increasing returns, path dependence, and the study of politics’, American Political Science Review, 94 (2000), pp. 251–67; Mahoney, J., ‘Path dependence in historical sociology’, Theory and Society, 29 (2000), pp. 507–48.

9 Craig, D., ‘“High politics” and the “new political history”’, Historical Journal, 53 (2010), pp. 453–75.

10 See works including M. Cowling, The impact of labour, 1920–1924: the beginning of modern British politics (Cambridge, 1971); M. Cowling, 1867 Disraeli, Gladstone and revolution: the passing of the second reform bill (Cambridge, 1967).

11 Craig, ‘“High politics” and the “new political history”’, pp. 469–70.

12 Ibid., p. 471.

13 Marsh, D. and Hall, M., ‘The British Political Tradition: explaining the fate of labour's constitutional reform agenda’, British Politics, 2 (2007), pp. 215–38; M. Hall, Political traditions and UK politics (Basingstoke, 2011).

14 See S. Beer, Modern British politics (London, 1965); A. Birch, Representative and responsible government (London, 1964); W. H. Greenleaf, The British Political Tradition (3 vols., London, 1983–7); Jordan, G. and Cairney, P., ‘What is the “dominant model” of British policymaking? Comparing majoritarian and policy community ideas’, British Politics, 8 (2013), pp. 233–59.

15 Blunkett, D. and Richards, D., ‘Labour in and out of government: political ideas, political practice and the British Political Tradition’, Political Studies Review, 9 (2011), p. 179 .

16 For a discussion, see Hall, Political traditions and UK politics, p. 38.

17 See Marsh and Hall, ‘The British Political Tradition’, p. 217.

18 Bevir, M. and Rhodes, R. A. W., ‘Decentering tradition: interpreting British government’, Administration and Society, 33 (2001), pp. 107–32.

19 See ibid., p. 123; R. A. W. Rhodes, Everyday life in British government (Oxford, 2011).

20 Dowding, K., ‘Interpretation, truth and investigation: comments on Bevir and Rhodes’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 6 (2004), pp. 136–42; McAnulla, S., ‘Challenging the new interpretivist approach: towards a critical realist alternative’, British Politics, 1 (2006), pp. 113–36; McAnulla, S., ‘New Labour, old epistemology? Reflections on political science, new institutionalism and the Blair government’, Parliamentary Affairs, 60 (2007), pp. 313–31.

21 See Bevir and Rhodes, ‘Decentering tradition’, pp. 110–11.

22 See M. Bevir and R. A. W. Rhodes, Interpreting British governance (London, 2003); Hay, C., ‘Interpreting interpretivism interpreting interpretations: the new hermeneutics of public administration’, Public Administration, 89 (2011), pp. 167–82.

23 See Rhodes, Everyday life in British government, passim.

24 Bevir, ‘Public administration as storytelling’, p. 188.

25 Ibid., p. 189.

26 Bevir and Rhodes, Interpreting British governance.

27 Bevir, ‘Public administration as storytelling’, p. 192.

28 Rhodes, R. A. W., ‘ Understanding governance ten years on’, Organization Studies, 28 (2007), p. 1253 .

29 R. A. W. Rhodes, J. Wanna, and P. Weller, Comparing Westminster (Oxford, 2009).

30 R. A. Chapman, Ethics in the British civil service (London, 1988), p. 225.

31 W. Sproule, ‘Content analysis’, in M. Walter, ed., Social research methods (Oxford, 2010), pp. 324–6.

32 Lord Fulton, The civil service: vol. 1. Report of the committee, 1966–1968 (London, 1968), para. 283.

33 Minute from T. H. Caulcott to Mr Gilmore, 10 Feb. 1972, TNA, BA 17/596.

34 Minute to the prime minister from Lord Jellicoe, 24 Mar. 1972, TNA, BA 17/596.

35 Minute from prime minister to lord privy seal, 25 Apr. 1972, TNA, BA 17/596.

36 Minute from P. Mountfield to T. Caulcott, 27 Apr. 1972, TNA, BA 17/596.

37 Minute from J. Hobson (private secretary (PS) to Sir Douglas Allen) to Sandy Russell (CSD), 22 Dec. 1977, TNA, BA 17/1196.

38 See J. Davis, ‘Allen, Douglas, Albert Vivian’, Oxford dictionary of national biography (Oxford, 2004–15).

39 Minute from Michael Townley to Mr McIndoe, 23 Dec. 1977, TNA, BA 17/1196.

40 Minute from Ian Bancroft (permanent secretary CSD) to Sir John Hunt (cabinet secretary), 5 Jan. 1978, TNA, BA 17/1196.

41 Bancroft to Hunt, TNA, BA 17/1196.

42 Minute from Sir John Hunt (cabinet secretary) to Sir Ian Bancroft (permanent secretary CSD), 16 Jan. 1978, TNA, BA 17/1196.

43 Hennessy, Whitehall, pp. 254 and 274.

44 Minute to the prime minister from Michael Foot, 23 Jan. 1978, TNA, BA 17/1196.

45 For an excellent summary of the politics of these debates, see Lowe, The official history of the British civil service, pp. 368–73. See also S. Ball and A. Seldon, The Heath government, 1970–1974: a reappraisal (London, 2014), p. 100.

46 For Norman Brooks's document, see confidential note by Norman Brook, 27 May 1958, TNA, BA 17/595.

47 Parliamentary Select Committees: Memorandum of Guidance for Officials, n.d., TNA, BA 17/595, para. 26.

48 Ibid., BA 17/595, para. 24.

49 Minute from C. D. Stevens to P. Mountfield, 7 Dec. 1971, TNA, BA 17/595.

50 Minute from Burke Trend (cabinet secretary) to the prime minister, 15 Apr. 1972, TNA, BA 17/596.

51 Minute from Michael Townley (Cabinet Office) to A. D. Gordon-Brown, 16 Jan. 1978, TNA, BA 17/1196.

52 Minute from A. W. ‘Sandy’ Russell (CSD) to John Hobson (PS to Sir Douglas Allen), 22 Dec. 1977, TNA, BA 17/1196.

53 Minute from A. W. ‘Sandy’ Russell (CSD) to Messrs Starkey and Hobson, 29 Dec. 1977, TNA, BA 17/1196.

54 Russell to Starkey and Hobson, TNA, BA 17/1196.

55 Minute from Michael Townley (Cabinet Office) to A. D. Gordon-Brown, 12 Jan. 1978, TNA, BA 17/1196.

56 Minute from A. W. ‘Sandy’ Russell (CSD) to Mr Bennett, 7 Aug. 1979, TNA, BA 17/1143.

57 Minute from Ministry of Defence to Brian Pearce (CSD), 8 Oct. 1979, TNA, BA 17/1143.

58 Minute from A. W. ‘Sandy’ Russell to C. T. Sandars (Ministry of Defence), 17 Oct. 1979, TNA, BA 17/1147.

59 Russell to Starkey and Hobson, TNA, BA 17/1196.

60 Minute from J. B. Pearce to Mr Starkey, 3 Jan. 1978, TNA, BA 17/1196.

61 Minute from Michael Townley (Cabinet Office) to A. W. ‘Sandy’ Russell (CSD), 10 Sept. 1979, TNA, BA 17/1147.

62 Minute from Ann Dickinson to Mr Pearce, 11 Dec. 1979, TNA, BA 17/1147.

63 Minute from Paul Channon MP (minister of state at the CSD) to Norman St John Stevas MP (chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster), 21 Dec. 1979, TNA, BA 17/1194.

64 Minute from Ann Dickinson to Mrs Howard, 22 Jan. 1980, TNA, BA 17/1194.

65 Lowe, The official history of the British civil service.

66 Minute from A. W. ‘Sandy’ Russell (CSD) to Michael Townley (Cabinet Office), 19 Dec. 1977, TNA, BA 17/1196.

* I would like to thank my colleagues in the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania, and the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University, for supporting strong and collegial research environments. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewers for their very thoughtful, constructive, and considered opinions. This research was supported by funding from the Australian Research Council through its DECRA program (Grant No: DE130101131).

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