The Secret World of Whitehall - BBC 4

Michael Cockerell's three part series, The Secret World of Whitehall is a must see, if only because it is like a TWMFL course (Teaching Whitehall Mandarin as a Foreign Language). It is not just that Senior Civil Servants are, on the face of it Civil but not necessarily Servile during their tenure. It is the case that they appear to remain so long after they have gone. But like all natural diplomats, they have a way of understatement or simply a well timed silence, to import a fairly readable meaning.

The programme gives us a picture of the quite different ways in which Whitehall is allowed to operate with a Prime Minister and his advisors, but there are certain non-negotiables. The first is the first hour's briefing with the Cabinet Secretary on national security. One of the first duties, we learn, is that every incoming PM must provide handwritten instructions to the Captains of our Nuclear Submarines, who presumably will only open them in the event of  the destruction of the British Government due to all out war. We don't get the details of course, but we do get a peek at COBRA, the situation room that becomes the hub of activity in a crisis.

The personalities in the programme are large. Some appear affable, most exasperated and some interviewees, particularly the political ones, just your usual bastards. All of them appear to have been avid followers of Yes, Prime Minister, the comedy show based on the interplay between a PM and his Cabinet Secretary.

You will not learn much that has not already been said or reported, which is in itself an exemplar of the new style of Number Ten operations which operates these days on a 24-hour news cycle. But as I said, the most revealing thing is the lingua franca of government. And perhaps also, that Tony Blair got through three Cabinet Secretaries before his fourth, Sir Gus O'Donnell, who has only stayed on to the present in order to ease the transition to coalition government.

Sir Robin Butler is probably the most concise and most revealing about the relationship with the three PMs he has served.

If you said something critical to Margartet Thatcher, she would be affronted but it woudln't rupture your relationship. If you said something critical to John Major, he'd be sad and ask If I really thought he had made such a mess of it. If I said something critical to Tony Blair, he would say, "You are absoulutely right. I quite agree with you". But you never really knew if he did.

I have seen the first two episodes. So far the words "Gordon" and "Brown" have not passed the lips of the present Cabinet Secretary. If you are wondering why, perhaps I can enlighten you:

(I would at this stage have liked to post a guest piece from a senior ex civil servant who is most certainly in a position to cast some light on it all, just for this blog, but despite his agreeing to do so over six weeks ago I have nothing to give you. You never know in the end if a "Yes" is really a "No". I guess I'll have to learn Mandarin.)

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