I’ve just finished catching up on, courtesy of iPlayer downloads, the BBC 4 documentary series ‘The Great Offices of State‘ filmed by journalist Michael Cockerell. Unfortunately the series is no longer on iPlayer so you will need to look out for the repeats if you want to watch it.
The series consisted of three programmes each looking, as the name suggests, at the three great offices of the British state; the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Treasury. It made good use of archive footage and interviews with the key players, both ministers and civil servants, to look at the history of those departments from the 1970’s to the present day.
I do like the documentaries that Cockerell makes. They are well filmed, intelligent and have an appealing sympathy for the subtleties and humanity of politics. On top of this is the amazing access he gets. This was no exception. Where I do have a criticism is that they can be a little light on analysis. Fortunately, in this series we had Peter Hennessy to fill in.
So what did we learn?
Firstly, that tensions between politicians and civil servants are inevitable, but that most of the time these are of the friendly, respectful, necessary, and appropriate kind.
Secondly, that each department, each organisation, has its own culture, traditions and character. Politicians would be wise to understand and respect these – if not always to totally go along with them.
Some ministers are better than others – politicians are not all the same – but that this is not a function of party. (Oh and that David Blunkett is an arse, but then I already knew that.) Also that some senior civil servants are better than others and they are not as dull as the stereotype would suggest.
That the Home Office is a troubled organisation tackling an impossible agenda and has declined in influence, but that the recent split that took away many of its functions and created the Ministry of Justice was probably a mistake.
That the Foreign Office, has also declined in power, losing out to the office of the Prime Minister. This has meant a decline in the influence that the FO’s way of doing things has on policy. This is probably also a bad thing. The Iraq war etc.
That the Treasury, the oldest of the great offices, remains the big beast in Whitehall with huge amount of knowledge and power. But that it is a cautious institution and not necessarily at its best in a crisis.
Finally, we learnt that Chancellors fall out with their Prime Ministers, that Foreign Secretaries get out ranked by their Prime Ministers, and that Home Secretaries resign.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.