Last week the mainstream media was full of stories of “top aides” quitting Downing Street. But typically the real scandal was entirely missed – the fact that ever-increasing numbers of unqualified and unelected political hacks are given positions of real power, and large salaries, at public expense.
The question is not why Munira Mirza resigned, the question is why the taxpayer was paying £143,762 a year in salary to this very dubious failed politician. Similarly, can anybody find anything about Elena Narozanski that remotely suggests she was worth a public salary of over £80,000 to provide policy advice on equalities to Boris Johnson? What precisely were her qualifications and experience for that kind of income and influence?
There are currently 113 Special Advisers in Whitehall. That has increased steadily over the last thirty years. Liz Truss as Foreign Secretary, for example, has five where Robin Cook had two. Since 2011 there has been a requirement to publish an annual report giving numbers and cost.
The first annual report in 2012 showed, under David Cameron, 78 Special Advisers with a total paybill of £6.2 million. The most recent report shows this has leapt to 111 special advisers with a paybill of £11.9 million. That is £11.9 million to pay Tory Party hacks (because that is all they are) over £100,000 a year each on average.
Did you ever wonder where Dominic Cummings came from? He went from somebody very few had ever heard of, to the man running the country, in an extraordinarily brief period of time. Which did not involve anybody ever having voted for him.
Well, in the 2012 report, there he is, already ensconced behind the scenes on £69,266 a year of public money, as Special Adviser to Gove as Minister of Education. There Cummings epitomised the Special Adviser by bullying and harassing long-serving civil servants who actually did know something about education. The taxpayer had to pay compensation to one female victim.
Special Advisers are supposed to fulfil the role of Stalin’s political commissars, ensuring the ideological views of the party are adhered to by the government machine.
There is in fact little evidence the civil service is unable to put into effect the ideological views of governments. The Attlee government introduced the largest revolution in the British state of modern times, nationalising the major industries and utilities and creating the National Health Service, with no Special Advisers at all. Ministers told the civil service what to do, and the civil service did it. Margaret Thatcher ran a counter-revolution with a government that had about two dozen Special Advisers in an average year.
John Major had at most 38; but like tuition fees, academy schools, illegal wars and many other terrible things in public life, it was Tony Blair who first initiated the great expansion of Special Advisers, to 84. Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May maintained this or a slightly lower level, until the Johnson boom.
Special Advisers are an actively dangerous tumour on the body politic. Neither elected, expert nor accountable, they are the most entitled and irresponsible set of people, suddenly handed very real and entirely unmerited power. I recognise precisely that arrogance, that sense of entitlement, in the culture of elite privilege that, in their minds alone, justified the culture of partying through lockdown in government buildings, hidden by the multiple screens of official security.
Four of the five “aides” who resigned from Downing Street last week were Special Advisers. I strongly suspect Special Advisers were the main instigators and participants in the parties being investigated by Sue Gray.
It is a factor which the mainstream media has been peculiarly reluctant to explore, and indeed so has Sue Gray. While her “update” at para 20 refers to “officials and special advisers”, there is no indication within it that she is considering the Hooray Henry culture of Tory Special Advisers as central to what has gone wrong. She is ignoring the actual cause, deliberately.
Gray’s conclusion at 23 (vii) that the problem is that the Prime Minister needs even more staff, can only be a prelude to a ridiculous “pressure of work” exoneration cooked up for her final report. Johnson has in consequence announced that he will create an “Office of the Prime Minister” – all of which misdirection is going to lead to the public purse shelling out money to an even greater number of Special Advisers for the new Office.
One of the five aides who resigned last week was Martin Reynolds, the Principal Private Secretary, who is indeed a career civil servant, not a SPAD. In his case “resigned” should be qualified as I understand he is just returning to the Foreign Office. Reynolds is, like David Frost, an example of a civil servant Johnson came across who shared Johnson’s political enthusiasms, and consequently got promoted far beyond his talents.
There has been insufficient scrutiny on Reynolds. As he is both an experienced career civil servant and a lawyer, there is no excuse whatsoever for his sending out invitations to parties in the garden during lockdown, as nobody denies he did on at least one occasion. As a life member of the senior civil servants’ trade union, the First Division Association, it does not really behove me to say that Reynolds should be sacked, but…
Scotland too suffers from infection by Special Advisers. In 2018 it had 14 Special Advisers – SNP party hacks paid from the public purse – costing the Scottish taxpayer over £1 million a year. The Scottish Government is extraordinarily defensive about them. Unlike Westminster, the Scottish government does not provide an annual report on Special Advisers, although it is supposed to do so under the same legislation covering Westminster. Instead, it gives the information out in reply to a well buried written parliamentary question.
This reply from the Scottish Government to a freedom of information request is deliberately obstructive and unhelpful:
Under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the First Minister is responsible for all Special Adviser appointments and is required to prepare an annual report setting out the number and cost of Special Advisers and to lay it before the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, some of the information that you have requested about Special Advisers has been provided previously in response to Written Scottish Parliamentary Questions (PQs). Under section 25(1) of FOISA, we do not have to provide you with information if it is already reasonably accessible to you. All Scottish PQs and their replies are published on the Scottish Parliament website. The search facility is available at:
The reply goes on to give the serial numbers for the relevant questions, but if you enter each serial number in to the search facility you get every government initiated parliamentary question for that session, and you have to search manually through a great many to find the answer you want. It all seems a less than open way of putting out information the Scottish government has a legal obligation to publish.
Sturgeon’s special advisers are particularly pernicious. They are used as a conduit to leak to the media, and famously were involved in orchestrating the attempt to have Alex Salmond falsely convicted. The mainstream media unanimously presented the SPADs involved in the orchestration as “civil servants”, to give a misleading impression of reliability and impartiality.
You may ask, why do the opposition not campaign against this Spad disease affecting our politics? Well, the problem is that they are in on the act. The opposition parties receive “Short money” and “Cranborne money” from the taxpayer to finance their own cadre of political hacks. The more Special Advisers there are, the more cash the opposition parties get. Thus in 2021 the Tories got £11.9 million of your and my money for Special Advisers, but the opposition parties split £10.2 million of public money from Short and Cranborne plus a further £1.1 million in “policy development grant”.
In fact the nomenklatura of unelected opposition hacks supported by the taxpayer is a slightly larger number of people than government special advisers, though on average paid a bit less.
This public financing of political parties – for that is what it is – has been brought in by stealth and foisted on the people. Opinion polling has always found strong opposition to the public purse funding political parties. When you add to these SPADs and Short staff, the ever expanding allowance for personal staff for each MP, again funded by the taxpayer, the problem is serious.
It is not that they constitute any even slightly significant percentage of overall public spending. It is that we have bred an entire political class, unelected, entitled and deeply unpleasant, who enter politics as a profession. Labour Special Advisers and Short money staff, with no interest whatsoever in socialism, played a key role in the destruction of Jeremy Corbyn.
I believe strongly that those engaged in politics, and in putting ideas to the people for democratic choice, should do so at their own expense. Voluntary associations of any kind may choose to back parties. But political activity, as opposed to the business of the government, should not be state funded. It gives established parties a huge advantage over fresh ones, and of course encourages the narrowing of political thought to fall within the doctrine of the state.
Special Advisers, Short money and all public payments to political parties should be abolished. They have a disastrous effect on politics, of which the partygate scandal has given us a little glimpse, though the issues run much deeper.
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