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Introducing Sir Humphrey Plumbton

May 2 2009

Who is Sir Humphrey? He had a long and distinguished service with successive Conservative and Labour administrations in the Civil Service. In his retirement he published many books and papers, notably “Capitalism Without a Conscience – A Worm’s Eye View”, “Life in the Silo – a Study of the British Civil Service”, and a training manual for politicians of all parties, entitled “Know your Place”.
Some time ago I came across a report that Sir Humphrey prepared, inspired by a paper entitled ‘The Pliability of Fact in the Decision Making Process’ - by Vladimir Mulenchik, translated by David Hilton. I quote an extract from that report.
‘I would only add one further comment on the issue of Inclusion itself. In a paper entitled ‘The Pliability of Fact in the Decision Making Process’ by Vladimir Mulenchik, a Hungarian émigré who entered this country in 1956 and published in the late 1950s - Mulenchik pointed out that there was no absolute fact or truth in politics. There was only an illusion of it. This was as important to the world of politics as Einstein’s work on the Theory of Relativity was in relation to Physics. It is quite facile to believe that politicians must resign every time they tell a lie. If there is no absolute truth, correspondingly there cannot be an absolute lie. That is not what it is all about. What it is about is that there is an illusion of truth, an illusion of competence and integrity. Ministers resign, Governments fall, Mikhail Gorbachev goes in disgrace when they shatter that illusion, when they call into question administrative competence and integrity. Sometimes, of course, it is very important that they should not resign because the resignation itself shatters that illusion. For the same reason, they should be urged not to apologise for mistakes made. This is as much to protect our backs as their faces.
Let me tell you quite precisely about the greatest illusion of all in politics. It is widely thought that politicians in central and local government are served by their officials. The reality is very different. Politicians act as lightening conductors for the bolts that should fly in the direction of inept civil servants, but only very rarely strike them. That is the way of it. The illusion is reverse image of the reality. Politicians serve their officials, not the other way round. They provide the first line of defence to attack. They take the blame. They provide the safety valve for the system. Then, ultimately, if the civil service gets it wrong, they lose their seats!
We understand that from time to time MPs and Councillors have to sound off and have to appear to be supportive of the interests of their constituents, but the Whips’ Offices are there to ensure that they do not overreach themselves. Patronage from 10 Downing Street is also quite a useful resource. We ought really to talk in terms of whips and carrots rather than sticks and carrots as tools of control and influence.
What is critical to that finely balanced relationship is the consistency of policy, the apparent competence of both officials and politicians and the incorruptibility of the system as a whole.
It is on the strength of that that politicians are re-elected, or not, as the case may be.
In other words, politicians come and politicians go, but we go on for ever or, at least, as long as we choose to. It is a very good system that has proved its worth over many years.
It may be subject to the criticism of inertia and insensitivity or, as the narrative alleges, myopia combined with tunnel vision, but it makes the British Civil Service the very best in the world and the envy of all democratic nations.
It is in this context that we must address the issue of Inclusion in Education.
We know full well that Inclusion is a much used, in fact over-used, word. It now means everything and nothing. But all Parties are now publicly committed to it. And some of the governing party’s leading activists see it as an article of faith and use it as a mantra to make wholesome their egalitarian concepts. Their continuing support for the ruling party cannot be ignored, especially when other aspects of their views on egalitarianism in education have to be bypassed.
There is a limit to the number of U-turns that can be contemplated at any one time if the illusion of competence is to be sustained. We have to accept that ‘dogma uber alles’ can never be an entirely alien proposition in either of the two main political parties in Britain. Pragmatism without dogma is like a ship without a rudder. That is one reason why the third party is the third party in British politics.
We have, in any event, a very clear policy to try to curtail the number of children statemented for special education to limit its cost. We have a policy going back to the last Conservative Government when we advised them to close special schools and discourage parents from pursuing this option in the exercise of their choice for the education of their children. It ought not to be discarded, simply because its logic is now being called into question.
We are fortunate that anyone seeking to qualify Inclusion in some way is widely perceived as being an arch reactionary.
We are also fortunate that we can use, for our gospel, the UNESCO Salamanca Agreement World Statement on Special Education Needs, 1994.3 This stated that schools are “the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all. Moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately, the cost effectiveness of the entire education system.”
This is, of course, a generalisation that totally ignores the legal imperative established by our judiciary to meet individual needs. It also ignores many consequential factors, not least costs, stress, strain, and the new word burn-out, in mainstream schools. The authors of the document actually had no evidence whatsoever for its assertion about cost effectiveness!
Furthermore, for quite a number of children with special needs, it can only reflect an aspiration rather than an expectation. But it validates the policy none-the-less.
What all this means is that you do not change direction at every gust of wind, but you do have to tack into it when it blows, if you do not want your political master to capsize.
It is a pity about poor Mr. Mandelson! Civil Servants should have watched his back, even if he didn’t. Unfortunately, neither he nor they studied the Training Manual “Know your Place ”

For the sake of historical record, I should record that Sir Humphrey Plumbton is the highly distinguished, very eminent uncle of James Harrington, the mandarin in my play, and is therefore my invention, as is “The Pliability of Fact in the Decision Making Process.” Vladimir Mulenchik was the original invention of David Hilton, a very good friend in my Oxford University days, and a Liberal. Accordingly all the words above are mine, and were written a few years ago, hence the reference to Peter Mandelson.
Very sadly David died in a road accident. David sustained the role of Vladimir Mulenchik for two hours in a Liberal Discussion Group in Manchester with everyone throughout believing that he was none other than a Hungarian émigré. Then Liberals are very trusting people. I am very happy to dedicate this post to his memory.