The purpose and role of special policy advisers

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There are two types of Special Adviser, one is appointed for their specific expertise, second is the more common, political appointment. They are appointed to a particular departmental minister to deal with a range of issues such as assisting with speech writing and being the political link between the minister and the party and with other bodies outside the department.

Heywood, in his book ‘Politics’, says, “By virtue of their expertise and specialist knowledge, bureaucrats or civil servants play a crucial role in policy formation, leaving the political executive to establish the overall direction of government policy.” He goes on to say, “The bureaucrat’s role is as the chief source of policy info and advice available to Government.”

However, in actual practice, of late, it would be fair to say there is more emphasis upon the bureaucrat/special adviser, rather then the civil servant.

If we look at British Prime Minister’s over the past 30 years, we find that it was Harold Wilson, who first brought in special advisers, when, in 1974, he formed the Number 10 Policy Unit. It was his successors, particularly Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair who made extensive use of these special advisers.

The commentator Martin Burch stated: “The most significant change in the operation of the cabinet system under Mrs. Thatcher is the extent to which the informal structure has been enhanced and the formal one downgraded. In some instances the function of Cabinet and its committees has been reduced to ratifying or marginally developing proposals that have been extensively worked out in the informal system. Policy is extensively ‘pre-cooked’ before it arrives in the kitchen.”

Mrs. Thatcher was also criticised for her use of advisors such as Sir Alan Walters from Chicago University and Sir Charles Powell, on matters of foreign policy. She also placed great emphasis on ‘think-tanks’ such as the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute. Indeed the weight she gave to the recommendations of Sir Alan Walters, led to the resignation of her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson.

Peter Hennessy in his book, ‘The Secret World of Cabinet Committees’, written in 1985, tells us how she dealt with departmental ministers often out of cabinet: “Mrs. Thatcher will ask a particular Cabinet Colleague to prepare a paper on a specific issue just for her; not for the full Cabinet or even for a Cabinet committee. This explains why her tally of Cabinet papers is so low; between 60 and 70 last year, about one sixth of the flow in the early 1950’s. When the Prime Minister has received the paper, the minister is summoned to No. 10 with his back up team. He sits across the table from Mrs. Thatcher and her team, which can be a blend of people from the Downing Street Private Office, the No. 10 Policy Unit, the Cabinet Office, and if money is involved, the Treasury. She then, in the words of one insider, proceeds to ‘act as judge and jury in her known cause’.

While eschewing the lure of a Prime Minister’s department, he has greatly strengthened the Cabinet office to institutionalise the dominance of No. 10 in the machinery of Government.

He has increased his political staff in No. 10 in areas such as the Private Office, the Press Office and the Strategic Communication Unit. He has double the number of staff as his predecessor, John Major. He has doubled the number of aides with communication skills in both the Press Office and the Strategic Communications Unit. He has also doubled the size of the No. 10 Policy Unit, John Major had seven staff, Blair has fourteen.

On 16th March 1998, The Times reported: “Party managers are now so concerned about Mr. Blair’s ‘presidential’ style that they are reviewing the whole structure of relations between the PM and his MP’s.” The story detailed the alleged remoteness of the PM from key areas such as the House of Commons tearoom. It seems the regular meetings with groups of MP’s had been abandoned through lack of time and MP’s were complaining of an aloof and inaccessible leader.

Many agree that the “keystone of the Cabinet arch” has removed or bypassed the arch.

Blair has come under considerable pressure and has been openly criticised in many quarters.

Mo Mowlam, took at sideswipe at the Prime Minister, claiming on the BBC Website that “a small number of unelected advisers were wielding too much power in Blair’s administration”, she went on to say “they seem to be operating instead of the Cabinet.”

Indeed Blair turned to the Fabian Society, the Policy Studies Institute and Demos.

John Kingdom, in his book ‘Government and Politics in Britain’ writes, “When Blair came to power, senior Civil Servants were obliged to see their advice overturned by ‘policy wonks’ only a few years out of Oxbridge.”

John Rentoul, in his biography ‘Tony Blair, Prime Minister’ noted that many viewed Blair’s friend and close aide Alistair Campbell as “the 23rd member of the Cabinet, the real Cabinet Secretary.”

Special advisers are viewed by many to be the direct cause of what some call ‘a devaluation of Cabinet government’.

John Kingdom quotes from the book ‘In My Way’, written by Lord George Brown in 1972, “I resigned on a matter of fundamental principle, because it seemed to me that the Prime Minister (Wilson) was not only introducing a ‘presidential’ system into the running of the government… far too often outsiders in his entourage seemed to be almost the only effective ‘Cabinet’.”

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