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5.0 out of 5 stars How the man in Whitehall came to know best, 27 May 2002
This review is from: Whitehall (Paperback)
Although a history of Whitehall this book concentrates principally on the development of the civil service since the Northcote/Trevelyan reforms of the early nineteenth century. Drawing on his considerable grip of the raw data, his unrivalled knowledge of the PRO files and his ability to extract the most from informant and interviewee alike, Hennessy brings to life the process by which the men (for few were women) and administrative machinery were fashioned into what became in the course of a century the finest civil service in the world - at once politically impartial, talented and effective - and, for misters who understood how to use it, an unrivalled tool for the refinement and implementation of policy. The process reached its zenith in the second world war when Whitehall successfully marshalled the resources of the country in a supreme effort to support the waging of total war. The mandarins had a "good war" and the man in Whitehall, with some justification did know best.
The historical analysis is accompanied by a current (early 1990s) description of each Whitehall department in turn and the relationship between ministers, parliament, pressure groups and what Hennessy refers to as the "permanent government". Recruitment, training and the development of the higher civil service ethos are also looked at as well as the attempts, generally unsuccessful, of succeeding Prime Ministers (or those that showed any interest in "machinery of government" questions)to reform the system.
And it is at this point that the paradox becomes apparent. By developing the skills which allowed it to be impartial and to be able to serve loyally the government of the day, whatever its political complexion, Whitehall assumed an institutional independence which rendered it inherently conservative. Too often, it appears, reasons were found for not engaging in changes of direction of which Whitehall disapproved. The elegantly crafted paper explaining to a minister why a particular policy may not be implemented or decision taken or, at least, not in the way envisaged, simply because something simlar had been tried before and had not worked, may well have been the best response to some proposals but as history has shown it was not the correct answer to all. As Hennessy points out, the civil service seemed less able than its French or Japanese counterparts to adopt ssuccessfully to post-war conditions. Whilst it would be wrong, as Hennessy does not do, to blame Whitehall for Great Britain's post war decline, it is right to question whether Whitehall as it operates at present is capable sysytemically of allowing the radical thinking and bold action which is necessary to secure the prosperity and security of the nation in a world where Great Britain does not automatically enjoy the advantages it did in the nineteenth century. Excellence of administration is no longer of itself sufficient. The administrators themselves need to be equipped with new skills and to be rewarded for bringing forward new ideas if they are to be able to provide ministers with the sound advice they need effectively to respond to the challenges in the twenty-first century. It should be seen neither as a criticism of their dedication, nor an undermining of their traditions of impartiality, if it is suggested to the higher civil service in Whitehall that reform as radical as that of Northcote and Trevelyan was in its day is needed in ours.
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Whitehall by Peter Hennessy (Hardcover - 1 Sep 1989)
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