The vexed question of the permanent civil servant's relationship with the elected government has been raised again with Conservative attempts to make permanent secretaries easier to sack. In an interesting short House of Lords debate on the subject (Accountability of Civil Servants: Constitution Committee Report) yesterday, I was particularly struck by the contribution of Lord Armstrong, who as Sir Robert Armstrong was probably the most conflicted head of the civil service. His tenure coincided with the first nine years of the Thatcher government.
In his closing remarks, Sir Robert was "reminded of the charge that Queen Elizabeth I gave to Sir William Cecil in November 1558, when she appointed him to be her principal Secretary of State - in effect, her Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service. She said: 'This judgment I have of you, that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift; and that you will be faithful to the State; and that, without respect of my private will, you will give me that counsel you think best; and if you shall know anything ... to be declared to me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only'."
To knowing chuckles from fellow cross-benchers who could see where this was going, Sir Robert said that it was also worth remembering "the advice that Sir William Cecil gave to his son and successor about what happened when he and the Queen disagreed: 'As long as I may be allowed to give advice, I will not change my opinion by affirming the contrary, for that were to offend God, to whom I am sworn first; but as a servant I will obey Her Majesty's commandment, and no wise contrary the same, presuming that she being God's ... minister here, it shall be God's will to have her commandments obeyed'.
"I might not have put it quite like that; I might have referred not only to her divine mandate, but to her democratic mandate too. However, I recognised instantly that that was how I felt in my dealings with Mrs Thatcher when she was Prime Minister and I was her Cabinet Secretary. The two quotations taken together seem to quite neatly and pithily encapsulate the duties of civil servants to Ministers."