Who the hell put you in charge? On Spads and management.

How to manage the abrupt disconnection of a 45 year commercial relationship? Why not “stick randomly appointed political hacks atop various departments, and shout at them to write lists”?  

Spads did not really exist fifty years ago, and those that did had little power. They sound rather more important now, if insider gossip about No Deal is to be believed: tasked with delivering the most complex state project since the War.  (hat tip, Alex Wickham)

A sub-editor friend admonished me for leaving Bubble-ish terms like “spad” hanging. Fair point. A short definition*: the SPecial ADviser is someone appointed to get the political work done. Ministers alone cannot suffice (not enough time, too bound up in the ceremony of government for key tasks like shouting at the press or whispering with lobbyists). The Civil Service might not follow the political line – every government since the 1970s has suspected the Bureaucracy either of being in it for themselves or of being too fond towards the government before. 

So the Spad was born, increasing in number from handfuls in the 1970s to perhaps eighty now.  You know them from Yes Minister, archly infuriating Sir Humphrey, or The Thick of It, hurling scatology and staplers at one another. Both portrayals contain some insight.  In truth, they have existed as long as the phrase “evil courtier”, and if they didn’t, they would be created pretty quickly, or pockets of the civil service would be corrupted to the political cause in their lieu**. 

The Civil Service definition of spad is worth knowing: “people appointed without regard to merit”.  It is only a little unfair: you actually need to be able to breathe, own a mobile phone, and know someone.  My first appointment followed coffee with a Lord known to hate obsessively the Prime Minister, which is awkward (every Spad is a PM appointment).  My second was a little different: it involved wine in The Clarence with the Chiefs of Staff, and they seemed to like the PM well enough. 

Otherwise, given the influence of the role, there was remarkably little vetting, not of my skills, views, competence nor probity. It was a giant fluke that I turned out such a gem… Other well known routes include:  lobbyists, journalists, party staff, a smattering of lawyers and academics. Less well-known: sharing a garden fence with the Boss; lifted out of the Treasury; college buddy. 

My favourite saying about spads is that the best are like poisoners: either well-known, or good at their job, but never both. Dominic Cummings, Alpha Spad to the Johnson Administration, had better hope he is the exception. The Internet is currently flooded with analyses of this man, just as it was for Nick Timothy under May and Steve Hilton under Cameron.  We definitely know what he thinks, if we have the stamina for his gloriously unedited blogs

It is Cummings, of course, who apparently commanded the Spads to go back to their Departments and prepare to list-manage them into a smooth No Deal. To some this is patently absurd: he cannot possibly think random 20-30-somethings know how to handle the regulatory, trade and logistical disruptions. It’s just a way of scaring those curiously unscareable Europeans, just before the German carmakers come over the hill to save us.  And, as the author of those blogs wrote  

It is impossible to describe the extent to which politicians in Britain do not even consider ‘the timetable and process for turning announcement X into reality’ as something to think about — for people like Cameron and Blair the announcement IS the only reality and ‘management’ is a dirty word for junior people to think about while they focus on ‘strategy’.

He has certainly given those juniors a lot to ponder. It strikes me that “the timetable and process for turning Brexit Do or Die into an acceptable outcome” is something to think about. No Deal Brexit is not one strenuous act of political will away from being a good idea, with Spads as the agents of Political Will. Good outcomes cannot be commanded.  There is indeed a reality underneath all the announcements that the rest of the country is going to have to handle. Brexit began as a political campaign but it is not going to end as one. It involves *real things*. 

With the exception of a brief period under Theresa May, Britain has gone a nice long time without that creature of the commanding majority, the imperial Spad, the martinet-guru commanding properly elected politicians to their Will. In these shell-shocked early days it may look like this returned system will hold, but in time Ministers and MPs might properly resent it.  Their lives are much harder, and their greasy pole much greasier, than that of the figures in the background. 

Despite this extended snark, I tend to rate spads. As Isabel Hardman writes in “Why we get the wrong politicians” (p187), recruiters tend to rate them pretty highly when set against the ex-MP.  Note, however, that they are talking about a career in communications. Now people perfect adept at crafting a media line are being told to work out how to re-knit a complex mess of laws, regulations, customs and technologies once chaotically cut at the stroke of midnight, 31st October.  It cannot be serious. 


*If you want a really long one, my IFG pamphlet from 2014 is worthy enough. 

**You could argue this is what happened with Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell under Thatcher

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm a mid 40s, former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

2 thoughts on “Who the hell put you in charge? On Spads and management.

  1. Sir Humprey wasn’t a Spad, he was the Permanent Under-Secretary of State (generally abbreviated to Permanent Secretary) and a career Civil Servant. The Spad’s name was Frank Weisel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: