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Not so civil, and no great service

ANOTHER series of Yes Minister is about to start on satellite TV tonight.

Some call this satire, yet perhaps the key to understanding the subtle comedy is that it's not so much satire, just the truth. Sir Antony Jay, creator of the series, based the first one on what Harold Wilson told him about the "oddities of life in Downing Street".

Prime Minister David Cameron's former senior policy adviser and "blue sky thinker" Steve Hilton has just revealed – faraway in the US – that bureaucrats master the politicians, and that senior ministers, even Sunny Dave himself, often just don't know what's going on.

This might shock but it shouldn't. Plenty of senior British politicians have revealed, in their diaries and memoirs, how unimportant and impotent they felt, how little influence they had over events and policy, how they reckoned that their civil servants had the genuine, continuing power, as they simply passed through one department to the next.

Most ministers, from Cabinet ministers downwards, worry about how their civil servants rate them. When they start their jobs they are utterly reliant on these civil servants for guidance and advice; later on, when that dependence has become engrained, they worry about their status. One of Margaret Thatcher's Scottish ministers, Sir Alex Fletcher, told me that when he was working at a ministry in London his boss, the Secretary of State, scrawled on a memo he had prepared that it wasn't good enough and he should draft it again. He found this demeaning; it was as if he were back at school. What really worried him was that his own staff would have seen the comment, even if they did not refer to it. He had been humiliated before his "servants".

Sometimes frustrated ministers try to bypass their civil servants altogether. They prefer the advice of special advisers or even, on occasion, journalists. In the 1970s Frank McElhone, a very decent Labour minister with genuine reforming instincts at the then Scottish Education Department, became seriously worried that his senior civil servants were not responding to his demands for more radical policies. So he started consulting a couple of education journalists – the late John Pirie of the Daily Record and myself. He told us that he knew this would infuriate his civil servants but they simply were not giving him the "informed policy ideas" he wanted.

I'm pretty certain that things have been much better in Scotland since the advent of the devolved Parliament at Holyrood. From what I hear there are few serious tensions between ministers and civil servants.

But the problem clearly festers on in Whitehall. Much of it is embedded in the nature of the two jobs. The politicians are public figures who like to be seen as people of action, people who are trying to change things for the better. The civil servants, anonymous figures who detest the limelight, are much more cautious, and likely to be in their jobs for far longer. In my final year at university I noticed that those applying for jobs as trainees in the civil service tended to be excessively careful, rather unimaginative types.

The civil service tends to be slow moving, and perhaps too tolerant of sluggish performance and sheer incompetence. It's always been thus. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan once exploded with fury when a briefing paper he had asked for three months earlier finally arrived, overlong and late, just a few hours before a crucial meeting.

Some have suggested that the current poor relations between ministers and their senior civil servants are rooted in the "Tory toff" mindset. Yet the ministers who are currently supposed to be most fed up with their civil servants – Theresa May, Eric Pickles and Michael Gove – are hardly toffs. Indeed the snobbery often works the other way round. It was none other than Tony Blair who once, possibly tongue in cheek, referred to "elected plebs".

Maybe it's the elected rather than the unelected who routinely feel humiliated, the supposed masters who come to realise that real power so often escapes them.

* Yes Minister, Gold, 9pm

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Local government

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