The Westminster Model - A Brief History

Burke, Green and Civil Service Ethics

An important feature of the Westminster Model (drawing on the teaching of 18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke) is that Members of Parliament (MPs) are representatives, not delegates. Burke himself said the following to his constituents, having been returned as an MP: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." In other words, MPs should act in what they judge to be the public interest - not as advocates for the interests of their constituents and therefore not necessarily in the way that their constituents might wish them to vote, nor even necessarily in the interests of their own constituency. It is worth noting, however, that Burke decided, six years later, that he would not seek re-election rather then lose the forthcoming vote, thus showing that no MP can completely ignore the views of his constituents and hope to be re-elected.

Building on the limitations of Burke's model, the nineteenth century idealist T H Green helped provide the ethical framework through which civil servants are expected to achieve integrity in their work. As politicians are inevitably subject to short term and selfish pressures, there needs to be a unified administration in which officials ensure the common good or public interest. To do this, they must be politically neutral and must demonstrate pecuniary and moral integrity. They must not be motivated by the desire to make money.

Northcote Trevelyan Reforms

Building in turn on Green, the 1854 Northcote Trevelyan Report on the organisation of the Permanent Civil Service responded to pressure for change which was in turn driven by circumstances which have immediate resonance today: ‘The great and increasing accumulation of public business, and the consequent pressure on the Government.’ The result was a civil service appointed on merit through open competition, rather than patronage, with the following core values:

Political Impartiality

The line dividing the British political class from the official class was established in 1884 when the Gladstone Government determined, in an Order in Council, that 'a civil servant standing for election in a constituency must resign his post when he announces himself as a candidate'.

Permanent Secretary Martin Donnelly, in a speech at the Institute for Government in June 2014, defined political impartiality in this way: "[Civil Servants must] not do for one Minister what would not be done for another of a different party ... in the same situation. ... Providing a convincing defence of government policy should be a core Whitehall skill; rubbishing the Opposition is not the function of permanent officials.".

But - and it's a big 'But' - civil servants are not totally impartial when serving the Government of the day.  Parties in government are always better served than parties out of government. The civil service advises Ministers on how best to present their policies, helps them avoid or respond to attacks, and (under the Osmotherly Rues - see further below) they can provide only selective information to Select Committees.

Almost inevitably, too, civil servants become reconciled to and often supportive of policies of Governments that are in power for several years.  Privatisation might have been one such policy.  It is nevertheless quite surprising how quickly officials can adapt to the quite different policies of an incoming Government, and then work very effectively to promote, defend and implement them. 

There are pretty obvious signs, too, that certain departments develop long term policy preferences which are hard to shift.  The Department of Transport tends to be pro-roads;  the Home Office used to have a liberal culture - but that may have disappeared;  the Foreign Office likes foreigners;  the Ministry of Agriculture is pro-farmer;  the Department for Industry/Business generally favours intervention and manufacturing;  the Department for Trade favours free trade; and so on.  These accusation may be unfair, but there is probably a kernel of truth in each of them.  And incoming Ministers find that they, too, quickly become sympathetic to the claims and lobbying of the departments' client groups.

Practical advice on remaining impartial may be found here.

The Haldane Model

The 1918 Haldane Report, published at the end of the First World War, recommended the development of deeper partnerships between Ministers and officials so as to meet the more complicated requirements of busier government as substantial executive ministries emerged from the first world war. The Report's impact came through two closely-linked ideas:

The relationship between civil servants and Ministers thus became one of mutual interdependence, with Ministers providing authority and officials providing expertise. This "Haldane Model" encapsulates the notion that civil servants have an indivisible relationship with their departmental ministers, quite different to many other models of government around the world, which are often based on separation of powers.

Crucially, however, the UK Civil Service has no "constitutional personality" or responsibility separate from the Government of the day. It is there to provide the Government of the day with advice on the formulation of the policies, to assist in carrying out the Government's decisions, and to manage and deliver Government services. Civil servants therefore ... :

Manchester University’s Dave Richards and York University’s Martin Smith have amplified the above description as follows:-

… the British system of government is seen to embody a system not of formally codified rules but instead one of advice - determined by the constitutional principle that [Prime] Ministers act as advisers to the sovereign, having in turn been advised by civil servants. It is based on the convention that officials are in a position to advise a minister on a subject (free from the threat of fear or favour) and as such, there is no requirement for the separation of power between the political and administrative class. This is the antithesis of the US ’Wilsonian model’ or many other European models of government that are premised on more pluralistic sentiments and a separation of powers.

Constitutionally then, the Haldane convention does not recognise any division in the personality of ministers and their officials. This principle of both indivisibility and mutual dependence within the UK system is seen as providing both a practical and constitutional constraint to protect against the arbitrary (ab)use of power. This convention became a bedrock of the Westminster model. It established the modus operandi that officials and ministers should operate in a symbiotic relationship whereby ministers decide after consultation with their officials whose wisdom, institutional memory and knowledge of the processes of governing helps to guide the minister. The official is loyal to the minster who takes the rap when things go wrong. Whatever the problems with this approach, democratic or otherwise, it at least outlined clear lines of responsibility and accountability.

Ministers were the ones held to account even if they often evaded the responsibility. Of course, scratch below the surface and the constitutional niceties of the minister-civil servant relationship have of course proved at times fractious. The Wilson Government’s suspicion and criticism of Whitehall moved it to establish Fulton, although infamously of course the Haldane principle was left strictly off-limits. Heath’s reorganisations in the early 1970s was an asserted attempt at ministerial muscle flexing, but Whitehall was not shy in kicking-back. The Benn side-show during the 1970’s Labour Government offered some entertaining spats when first in Industry, then in Energy, he challenged the standard operating procedures within Whitehall, so boo-hooing Haldane. But beyond these skirmishes, it is really only since the 1980s, that the Haldane model has been gradually, and largely implicitly, undermined.

This 'undermining' is examined in more detail in the Civil Service Reform section of this website.

Douglas Wass' 1983 Reith Lecture 'The Privileged Adviser' is a highly readable review of the relationship between Minister and senior official as it was then, and as it is still supposed to be.

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