The British Tradition of Administration
Robert Skidelsky
Moscow Conference | Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The British tradition of public administration is aristocratic, the French is republican. This difference persists today beneath the practice of meritocratic selection common to both countries. It is reflected in the greater importance of social class in recruitment to the higher ranks of the British civil service. Educational reforms designed to increase access have run up against the persistence of the British class structure, giving a strong social bias to ‘selection by ability’. This is true in both schools and universities. The best efforts of reformers to remove parental advantage from the recruitment of top civil servants has been undermined by social attitudes with deep historic roots.
Absent from today’s discussion is the American tradition which is partly political,partly legal, partly plutocratic. There is no British or French equivalent to a political civil service-one that changes its composition whenever there is a political change. Civil servants in both countries are expected to be politically neutral. American administration attaches a higher premium to legal training, but it is a legal meritocracy modified by wealth, via entry through ivory league universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia. The British system has been becoming more plutocratic as class gives way to wealth as the basis of social distinction. The triumph of money values has created huge potential problem for civil service recruitment. There is a growing disparity between private and public sector salaries, with top managers earning up to ten times as much as top administrators, largely through bonus and share option schemes. Idealism, a sense of wanting to serve one’s country, job interest and security may no longer be enough to attract and retain the ablest.
There is another importance difference between the British and French systems. In Britain local centres of government grew towards the state, so centralization has always been incomplete, with a devolved government in Scotland recently added. Since the French revolution, the French state has been highly centralized. There has been no British equivalent to the French prefect –no local agent of the central government with executive powers. The role of the civil service also differs between parliamentary and presidential systems. In the British system civil servants are subordinate to elected politicians. Their job is advisory. In a presidential system, they may be ministers –that is, executive –themselves. The qualities required, and attitudes bred, in the two systems are by no means identical. The French approach to government is more entrepreneurial; the British more sceptical.
The three-tier system in the British civil service emerged in the 19th century: a small administrative class at the top, a larger executive class in the middle, and a clerical class at the bottom. This broadly corresponded to the three-tiered Victorian class system, upper, middle, and working, class, and the three-tiered educational system: public schools, grammar schools, and state secondary schools. The administrative class was recruited largely from public-school, university educated entrants, the executive class from grammar school leavers, and the clerical class from secondary school leavers.
By the middle of the twentieth century, meritocratic recruitment meant ‘channelling industrious and often impecunious middle class ‘scholarship boys’ from grammar schools through the non-scientific courses at Oxford and Cambridge’ -especially in classics, philosophy, politics, economics, and modern history. Oxford and Cambridge syllabuses helped prepare students for competitive civil service examinations. Oxbridge degree examinations, based on short essays written under time pressure, met Ministerial requirements for quick briefings in clear, elegant prose. A country house, or interview, method of admission, modelled on the selection system for army officers, came in after the second world war to supplement written examinations. Between 1900 and 1986, 45 per cent of permanent secretaries –or administrative heads of government departments –came from Oxford, 23 per cent from Cambridge.
Meritocratic pressure grew in the 1960s when the British civil service was compared unfavourably with its French equivalents, who out-negotiated British officials over entry into the EEC. In 1968 the Fulton Committee recommended that the three civil service classes be merged into a single career ladder, specifically to boost technical expertise at the expense of a general humanistic education. ‘The word ‘class’ and the structure it represents’, said the committee, ‘produces feelings of inferiority as well as of restricted opportunities’.
In practice, the Fulton Report led to only limited changes. ‘Fast track’ entry to the higher civil service from the top universities continued, but from a somewhat wider social base. One historian writes that ‘the continued prominence of Oxford and Cambridge in civil service recruitment now reflected, not privilege or favouritism, but their own broadened recruitment’. This is only partly true, since up to 50 per cent of students at both universities come from a small number of independent, or fee-paying schools.
The same hope of widening access to the professions underpinned the vast expansion of the university system. This started in the late 1950s with the creation of new universities and the expansion of existing institutions. It was hoped, at least by the reformers, that this would dislodge Oxford and Cambridge from the pinnacle of the university system –or at least lead to a widening of elite university education. This aim was partly achieved, with my own university, Warwick, being numbered among the half dozen top universities in Britain. Nevertheless, Oxford and Cambridge have retained pole position, partly because of their immense inherited wealth, partly because of their favoured funding system. In any year, more than half the recruits to the higher civil service are graduates of these two universities.
The persistence of class as an influence on recruitment was an unforeseen consequence of the reforms to school education introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. These led to the abolition of the second tier of the school system –the grammar-school - and its replacement by what Prime Minister Tony Blair later called the ‘bog standard’ comprehensive school. The result was two parallel school structures: the small group of a hundred or so first-class independent, fee-paying schools and over two thousand state-financed local authority secondary schools, with very little in between.
The significance of the change is that the grammar schools, which selected pupils at the age of eleven on the basis of ability, were the main ladder by which bright working class children climbed into the higher civil service. The act of educational vandalism which led to their destruction removed this ladder. Comprehensive schools were meant to replace it by widening the channel of recruitment to the universities and thence into the professions, including the civil service. But they have disappointed the hopes of their advocates. The standard of state education was widely thought to have declined as a result of dysfunctional educational ideology, under-funding, and repeated attempts to refashion the curriculum and testing systems. This perception strengthened the position of the independent schools, to whom newly affluent parents turned as an alternative to state schools, especially in cities like London, where state schools were beset with social problems. Without the demise of the grammar schools, independent schools would almost certainly have shrunk in number and influence. From the 1990s onwards, governments of both right and left have tried to recover from the mistakes of the 1960s by introducing national achievement ‘targets’ to raise educational standards and by covert encouragement of ‘selection’. But the egalitarian spirit remains too strong for any open avowal of educational ‘elitism’.
At all stages of educational reforms, the elite schools and universities have been protected from egalitarian pressures by the fact that British government has been run by their products. The paradoxical result is that the attempt to widen access by making state and university education more egalitarian has increased the dominance of the private schools and ancient universities. The continuing assault on both in the name of equality of opportunity gives a permanently unsettled character to Britain’s educational system.
The British have not found anyt secure transition from an aristocratic to a republican system. The main reason is that there has been no great ‘rupture’ in modern British history, such as occurred several times in France, starting with the Revolution. As a result change has been organic, not revolutionary, and reformers have always had to compromise with undefeated opponents. Egalitarian demands have come into conflict with social class, which continues to bias meritocratic selection in favour of the wealthy and well-born. Whether this matters is another matter: it is the British system and it will continue.