For more than 100 years one overriding principle has governed British public life: the fastidious separation of public and private interests. Those who have worked for the state — whether in the armed forces, the Civil Service, as MPs, or in some other way — have never used their office for private gain or any other selfish purpose. These principles were first explicitly set out at the time of the Gladstonian reforms of the public service in the mid-19th century and have been adhered to since under all governments, whether Liberal, Labour or Conservative. There have of course been many individual lapses from this high ideal; but the system itself has been extremely robust, surviving throughout the 20th century.
This special idea of strong, disinterested public service is now in rapid decay. There have been two principal aspects of disintegration. The first manifested itself with a ferocious attack by a new political class on the traditional institutions of the state. This process was extremely regrettable, insidious and corrupting. Nevertheless it was not venal. It arose not from private greed but from a failure of understanding by the generation of politicians that came to power alongside Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997. They obscurely felt that it was wrong that a political party once in power should be unable to use the institutions of state — judiciary, monarchy, Civil Service — for its own particular ends.
But human nature is frail. Over time the appetite to politicise the institutions of state has turned into a readiness to take personal advantage as well. Lack of respect for the proper process of government has shown itself in two ways. It has led on the one hand to the shambles and abuses identified — to give just one example — by Lord Butler in his report into the preliminaries of the Iraq war. On the other hand, this same looseness of procedure and practice has led to a surprisingly widespread abuse of public office for personal gain or advantage. Ministers are ceasing to ask how they can serve the common good; rather, they are asking how they can serve themselves. The case of David Blunkett, who abused his ministerial office and used the government car service to ferry his mistress up and down the country, is a recent case in point. Most importantly, when David Blunkett resigned from the government last year, the Prime Minister insisted that he had left office ‘without a stain on his character’.
The controversy over the Prime Minister’s wife, Cherie Blair, should be understood in this context. Mrs Blair is the most obvious and colourful product of the corrupt new system which New Labour has embedded in government. Rather than ask how she can serve the public good, she continually wants to know how she can use her position inside No. 10 Downing Street for herself. Cherie Blair is now running a private business from Downing Street, designed to make as much money as quickly as possible by trading on the fact that she is the wife of the British Prime Minister. Mary Wilson, married to an earlier Labour prime minister, once turned down a payment of £33 for one of her (rather good) poems for fear that she would be trading on her temporary incumbency of No. 10.
Supporters of Mrs Blair say that she is being unfairly pilloried, and to some extent they are right. It is Tony Blair, not she, who should be called to account. The Prime Minister must have approved his wife’s decision to earn £100,000 in New Zealand — money that should rightfully have gone to a cancer charity. He must have approved the estimated £30,000 she recently acquired in Washington; and doubtless he is well aware of her upcoming freebie visit to open a Malaysian shopping centre. Presumably he is happy for his wife to exploit the position of prime minister’s consort in this way, so long as he personally does not suffer criticism. The historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote that Lloyd George was the first premier since Walpole to leave No. 10 Downing Street much richer than when he entered it; the Blairs seem determined to repeat the performance. They have betrayed the great legacy of official integrity which they inherited when they entered Downing Street eight years ago.
This is a matter of public concern. In happier times it would have fallen to the Cabinet secretary to have intervened in cases where high office was being brought into disrepute. Sadly, one consequence of the disintegration of the public service ethic has been the degradation of the post of Cabinet secretary. Tony Blair and his colleagues have been careful to strip this once mighty Whitehall position of the great power and mystique it once held.
Sir Andrew Turnbull, the present incumbent, was appointed after being told that he was to lose many of the powers and much of the authority of the job as it was traditionally understood. Nevertheless there have been certain signs recently that Sir Andrew has become conscious of the historic functions of his great position. Last month he raised concerns about the appointment of Tim Allan, a corporate lobbyist, to a senior Downing Street position. Now I am told that Sir Andrew may feel obliged to ‘say something’ to the Prime Minister on the subject of his wife’s commercial practices. Doubtless such a conversation would be unminuted and private.
There are legitimate reasons for the Cabinet secretary to intervene. We live in an age of joint bank accounts, and Tony Blair is as much a beneficiary of Cherie Blair’s cash as she is. There are proper questions about whether he could be influenced by the money and the benefits that are accruing to the Blair family. This issue has been thrown up in particular by the forthcoming Malaysian trip.
There is a second area of concern, and this involves the way civil servants are being drawn into Cherie Blair’s various private enterprises. For instance, Sir David Manning, the British ambassador to Washington, agreed to introduce Mrs Blair ahead of her recent and deeply regrettable public interview. Furthermore, the Downing Street press office has been drawn into a series of misleading statements about the affair, presumably in order to protect the Prime Minister’s reputation. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, Tom Kelly, has been repeatedly quoted saying that Cherie Blair’s trip to the United States was private; these statements seem hard to reconcile with the involvement of the British ambassador, the fact that Mrs Blair stayed at the British embassy, was ferried around in an official car, etc., etc.
This is not the first time that Downing Street officials have compromised their integrity on behalf of Mrs Blair, as Tom Kelly will be vividly aware. I am told that for these, and other reasons, Mrs Blair’s behaviour is causing deep concern within Downing Street. So it should. The Prime Minister and his wife are using public office in a way that has not been seen for many years inside Downing Street: as an opportunity for private gain.