The extraordinary high profile ‘I-am-not-going- quietly’ resignation on Saturday morning of the Home Office’s top civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam - amidst rancorous claims of constructive dismissal and bullying - comes after several recent challenges to the status quo in Whitehall by the Prime Minister’s chief policy advisor, Dominic Cummings (“Will Dominic Cummings’ reign bring the shadowy world of spads into the light? “ 24 February 2020; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/23/dominic-cummings-reign-shadowy-world-spads) and by uppity home secretary, Priti Patel (“Charming, hostile – or both? Westminster split over hardline minister,” 29 February 2020; https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/29/who-is-the-real-priti-patel)
These developments remind me of an interview I conducted in December 1981, with policy advisor Norman Strauss inside a pokey room at 10 Downing Street, as part of my PhD research.
A twenty year veteran of Unilever management, he was seconded into the Number 10 ‘Policy Unit ‘by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after her victory in the 1979 General Election, from the conservative Centre for Policy Studies ( where he had spent 4 years) with the aim of kick-starting the radical reform of Whitehall practice of what Strauss dubbed the “status quo extremism.”
He told me in an on-the-record interview on the development of nuclear power policy that there was a “total establishment failure trap.”
Tony Benn, when Labour's energy secretary, recorded something similar in his Diaries (“Conflicts of Interest: 1977-80” pp 136-37) for the period immediately preceding Strauss’s time as a special advisor, when the Callaghan government was deciding on future civil nuclear policy.
Strauss resigned in disillusion after three years inside the ’Policy Unit’ frustrated with his failure to convince colleagues that information tech was outgrowing the competence of Government to control it, as he feared Whitehall long-servers were deliberately stifling new ideas.
This has such current day resonance with the cummings - and maybe soon to be goings ( to paraphrase the outgoing chancellor Sajid Javid) - of the prime minister’s chief policy advisor.