The first exercise in headbanging was to push through the commission a supposedly neutral paper drafted by Lester to be published as part of the commission's public consultation. Not only were none of the consultation questions to mention the UK's relationship with the European Court of Human Rights but we were to accept the bald statement that the HRA had left parliamentary sovereignty "unaffected". Since this was the very matter we had been asked to investigate, acceptance of this verdict at the outset made the work of the commission fairly pointless. When I expressed this view, Sir Leigh adjourned the meeting for a conversation with me. In a basement cafeteria at the House of Lords he told me that I would be considered a "maverick" and would lose all influence on the commission unless I accepted the Lester paper.
Matters were only to get worse. My year-long experiences on this dysfunctional commission together with some other recent activities have provided a direct view of some problems of British government about which I have taught for much of my academic career. In summary, the reality is a caricature of much academic writing about the working of central government in the UK.
Consider, for instance, the behaviour of some senior civil servants. The techniques whereby the legendary Sir Humphrey Appleby overcame his political master on the TV series Yes, Minister were part of my scholarly education. I had often read about the dodges used by chairmen to get their way — control of the agenda, waiting until ten minutes before lunch to introduce the most important items and so forth. What came as a surprise was the sheer aggression with which the techniques may be deployed and with what powerful effect. At one stage, I was told in no uncertain terms that it is civil service practice that minutes of meetings may "bear no relation to" the actual proceedings they purport to record. I had no right to ask for items to be placed on the agenda except under the brief slot for "Any Other Business", and the chair's terms of reference whereby I could be denied that right were not available to me.
There is an accumulation of public evidence about the style in which some senior mandarins express themselves nowadays. In his final days as Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus (now Lord) O'Donnell wrote to the chair of the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons, the Labour MP and former minister Margaret Hodge, to protest against her public questioning of civil servants. "There is now a serious issue," he wrote to her, "about the way you are perceived by the wider civil service." He warned that hearings conducted by MPs should not be a "theatrical exercise in public humiliation". This followed an earlier incident where O'Donnell protested in strong terms to the Prime Minister about a reported briefing by a Conservative political adviser in which he characterised the chair of the Electoral Commission (and the holder of other positions) as a "quango queen". O'Donnell's successor apparently used divide-and-rule techniques to secure the exits from No 10 of two of David Cameron's senior political advisers. Michael Gove is reported to have met civil service resistance to his reforms at the Department for Education.
A related reality is the powerful link between ministries and pressure groups. Here too this was something about which I had read and given tutorials to undergraduates. Once again, it was the sheer strength and near exclusivity of these connections that came as a surprise. The Ministry of Justice, which sponsors the Bill of Rights commission, is a case in point.
The coming of coalition government has strengthened the influence of the civil service and has acted to the advantage of the Liberal Democrats, with whom the civil service generally has greater sympathy. On the ground that policy advice needs to go both to Cameron and Clegg, civil servants rather than political appointees of the Prime Minister head his policy unit. This arrangement effectively restricts input from Conservative Party political advisers.
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