On the eve of Gordon Brown's last Budget, this morning's Financial Times front page features a very blunt assessment by disgruntled ex-mandarin Lord Turnball. A former Treasury and Cabinet Secretary, he accused Brown of behaving in a 'Stalinist' manner:
Gordon Brown has exhibited a "Stalinist ruthlessness" in government, belittling his cabinet colleagues whom the Treasury treats with "more or less complete contempt", according to the man who was Britain's top civil servant until two years ago.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Lord Turnbull, permanent secretary to the Treasury for four years under Mr Brown before becoming cabinet secretary in 2002, accused the prime minister-in-waiting of a "very cynical view of mankind and his colleagues".
"He cannot allow them any serious discussion about priorities. His view is that it is just not worth it and 'they will get what I decide'. And that is a very insulting process," Lord Turnbull said.
"Do those ends justify the means? It has enhanced Treasury control, but at the expense of any government cohesion and any assessment of strategy. You can choose whether you are impressed or depressed by that, but you cannot help admirethe sheer Stalinist ruthlessness of it all."
Lord Turnbull praised achievements including the independence of the Bank of England, the three-year spending round, much of the fiscal framework and targets for departments, which had been "a net strong plus" and "quite a revolutionary step".
But Lord Turnbull noted that Bank of England independence would have suited Mr Brown by allowing him to disavow responsibility for interest rate rises. "The chancellor has a Macavity quality. He is not there when there is dirty work to be done."
...In some areas, Lord Turnbull said, the Treasury had become itself the policymaker and guardian over a set of policies such as tax credits. The chancellor, he said, had kept control of those budgets "entirely to himself".
"That has been impressive, but in a sense reprehensible. There has been an absolute ruthlessness with which Gordon has played the denial of information as an instrument of power."
Departments learned only just before Budgets "this is what you are getting and here are your public service agreements".
Such comments are unusually direct for a former senior civil servant. But should we really be surprised? Political leaders do tend to be strong-willed and at times ruthless. They don't get to the top by being nice. Margaret Thatcher's abrasive and autocratic leadership style has been roundly condemned, as has Tony Blair's 'sofa cabinet'. Chicken Yoghurt agrees - wondering what all the fuss is about now we have evidence Gordon Brown is human after all
I say that comes as a huge relief. Hell, I could name two or three dozen bloggers, off the top of my head, who have built their reputations on exactly that interpretation of the New Labour cabinet over the last few years. It’s just nice to see that Gordon’s been part of the real world all this time.
The make-up of the Cabinet over the last ten years merely reflects the dearth of talent, first class minds and imagination in British politics. In turn, Brown’s attitude toward his colleagues is merely the reflection - the admission - of that.
Dave's Part takes issue with the claim of Stalinism:
Gordon Brown is not - whatever Lord Turnbull would have you believe - a Stalinist. Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili at least advocated socialism in one country. That's one country more than Mr Brown.
Guardian editor David Walker says that while Lord Turnbull's criticism of the chancellor is instructive, it is the civil service itself which must change: We must look beyond Brown
Once, someone in Turnbull's position would have thought structurally and devoted their experience to a reflective critique of the system. ...Instead, he personalises the issue as if it were Brown at fault rather than the system, which necessarily includes the culture and capacity of the civil service.
It's as if he - along with Lord Butler and the former cabinet secretary Lord Wilson - want to deflect attention from the shortcomings of the senior civil service in the 21st century. Blair and Brown are serial abusers of power - but so are all prime ministers and chancellors. If what's changed is that they get away with it, the explanation must lie with the absence of checks and balances or the ineffectiveness of the machinery of state beneath them. And that is surely the responsibility of cabinet secretaries.
...This intervention shows just how much we need to re-arrange the way we are governed at Westminster and in Whitehall. Let civil service reform start here.
Fair cop. But I doubt the need for civil service reform is the only issue raised here.
UPDATE: The FT interview has sparked plenty of commentary. The Financial Times leader comments Ruthlessness has a place in politics, but so too does trust
The worst-kept secret in Whitehall is that Gordon Brown hates to delegate. The UK chancellor and probable next prime minister is known across government for his reluctance to involve other ministers in decisions. Now Lord Turnbull ..has offered a unique public insight into how Mr Brown’s management style affects policymaking.
...An element of iron in the soul is necessary in politics. An incoming government will often require a single-minded determination to fulfil its agenda in the face of a bureaucracy resistant to new ideas. Political leaders who bring about change of lasting significance, such as Margaret Thatcher, need an uncompromising streak. Tony Blair himself has a ruthless side.
Boldness can trump consultation. Mr Brown’s early transfer of monetary policy to the Bank of England – one of the landmarks of his time as chancellor – is an example.
For all that, the worrying aspect of Mr Brown’s style is his exclusion of ministerial colleagues from matters in their own departmental domains, and the reliance instead on a small, tightly-knit band of advisers defined as much by their personal loyalty to the chancellor as their political and administrative skills.
This has unfortunate results. It lessens the prospect that the policy will be followed through successfully – a trademark flaw of this government. A department and its minister are unlikely to be fully committed to initiatives presented to them as Treasury faits accomplis...
In the absence of collective political decision-making, it also becomes harder to assign responsibility for the implementation of policies. Much of the story of the Blair/Brown government has been one of initiatives and targets trumpeted and too easily forgotten.
...Mr Brown is a talented politician. Today’s Budget should remind us of the Iron Chancellor’s formidable economic record of low inflation and steady growth. But if he seeks to run the country as he has run the Treasury he will fail. Mr Brown must learn to trust his colleagues and share responsibility.
The Guardian leader adresses: The character thing
Lord Turnbull's accusations hardly come out of the blue. The public knows, even if it hasn't heard it before from such a senior civil servant, that over the years Mr Brown has had a bit of a thing about being in control, and that he has never been the most collegiate of ministers.
...Yet it is misleading to cast Mr Brown as an ordinary command-and-control politician, and downright unjust to label him a Stalinist. As the chancellor never fails to remind us, he gave independence to the Bank of England. As he may show again today, he prefers to influence the economy - pretty successfully, most would agree - by sticks and carrots, not direct edict.
Civil servants may have legitimate criticisms of this government's ways of doing business over the past decade, as Anne Perkins's current Radio 4 series is showing, but mandarins are rarely comfortable when strong ministers and their advisers place themselves firmly in the driving seat, as Mr Brown and his lieutenants have done. Some of the jibes against Mr Brown go with the job; the Treasury is never popular in other parts of Whitehall and secrecy is inevitably part of the budget process.
...As Mr Brown embarks on the budget-day rituals for probably the final time today, the question is whether he understands two things: first, that prime ministers have no choice but to behave differently and, second, that he personally has got something to prove.
...Mr Brown has floated the view that he can and will act differently if he becomes prime minister: that he will centralise less, devolve more and operate more openly. Mr Cameron will taunt him that the man described by Lord Turnbull cannot change his ways. Mr Brown has to understand how much it matters that he does and, having understood, must do so.
Also worth reading is Michael White's piece in Wednesday's Guardian: Learning to delegate