LIFE AS A SpAd
ASPECIALSp Ads SpAds
ASPECIAL ADVISER UNDERTHE COALITION
Duncan Brack, former SpAd to Chris Huhne in the department for energy and climate change, lifts the lid on what life is like for these vital cogs in the coalition government
Special advisers (SpAds) under New Labour tended to a ract a bad press – think Alastair Campbell, Damian McBride, or Jo (“good day to bury bad news”) Moore. The coalition came to power with a determination to reduce their influence, even though both David Cameron and Nick Clegg had been SpAds themselves (Clegg in the rather diﬀerent context of a European Commissioner’s cabinet). The coalition programme, accordingly, contained a commitment to “place a limit on the number of SpAds”.
Fortunately, it didn’t say what the limit should be, as numbers since then have steadily climbed, from 66 a er the election to 74 in March 2011 and 81 in December 2011 – now higher than the 78 at the end of the last Labour government. This is a somewhat belated – and welcome –
recognition of the fact that coalition increases the need for SpAds, adding another relationship to the several that SpAds are there to manage.
Until February, I was a SpAd, working for Chris Huhne. SpAds are the personal appointments of cabinet ministers, and live and die with them. Most of them worked for these MPs in opposition and moved into government with them, but my background was slightly diﬀerent. I’d known Chris for a long time, and helped on his leadership campaign in 2007. I also had a background in environmental policy, through my previous job at Chatham House. He asked me at the Lib Dem special conference on the Sunday a er the coalition was agreed if I was interested in the post, and eight days later I started. The job lasted for just over 20 months, to the day Chris stood down. My le er of dismissal popped into my inbox five hours a er he resigned.
into my inbox five hours a er he resigned.
Every SpAd job is diﬀerent – it varies
Every SpAd job is diﬀerent – it varies with the department, the minister and the individual – so I’m not pretending that what I did at DECC is at all typical of SpAds in general, or even of my successors. Nevertheless, there’s a range of functions that all SpAds carry out, to a greater or lesser extent.
In theory at least, the main role of SpAds is to help ministers implement their political priorities. This goes back to the first systematic use of SpAds under Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964-70. A er 13 years of Conservative administration, Labour felt the need to bring in “guardians of the manifesto”, to help overworked ministers ensure that civil servants adjusted to the new government’s priorities, particularly where major changes were involved.
This was never much of an issue for us. DECC was pointing more or less in the right direction when we took over, though Labour’s approach had been somewhat incoherent. We aimed to speed up the development and implementation of policy to tackle climate change and develop low-carbon energy, and to give a higher priority to certain areas, such as energy eﬃciency. The only major problem Lib Dems could have had with DECC’s previous stance was in the commitment to new nuclear stations, but that question had been se led in the coalition negotiations.
We didn’t, therefore, anticipate any particular problems with our civil servants
– who, in general, were excellent and highly commi ed. Mostly what I did, particularly in the early months, was to help them understand what Chris would be likely to want in terms of policy
Chris would be likely to want in terms of policy options, especially on issues not covered in the manifesto or the coalition programme. That’s not to say that I never disagreed with them, but
– who, in general, were excellent and highly commi ed. Mostly what I did, particularly in the early months, was to help them understand what Chris would be likely to want in terms of policy options, especially on issues not covered in the manifesto or the coalition programme. That’s not to say that I never disagreed with them, but it didn’t happen o en, and mostly over issues where I thought the division of responsibilities between departments meant that our oﬃcials were forced into taking an unnecessarily narrow view of the overall climate objective.
Where the disagreements really came was in relations with other sections of the government. DECC is a very small department, but its brief is broad, leading on climate policy government-wide. In reality, this meant that realising our objectives o en depended on actions by other departments – as well as the Treasury (always crucial, of course, for every ministry), BIS, Defra, Transport, CLG, the Foreign Oﬃce and DFID all had key roles.
Arguing with SpAds in these other departments took up a surprising amount of my time – and mostly it wasn’t that productive, as we o en ended up bouncing ma ers up to ministers. The study of the workings of the coalition shortly to be published by the Constitution Unit at UCL suggests that I wasn’t alone in this, finding that compared to the previous government, SpAds have (at least so far) played less of a brokering role between departments and ministers. Partly this is because we come from diﬀerent parties, but mostly because we simply lacked the authority to reach agreement, at least over major issues. (Note that this doesn’t apply to the centre – the PM’s and deputy PM’s SpAds spend much of their time managing relations between the coalition partners. The DPM’s oﬃce helped to sort out our problems on more than one occasion, though the ministers always decided the key issues.)
the coalition partners. The DPM’s oﬃce helped to sort out our problems on more than one occasion, though the ministers always decided the key issues.)
The kind of ‘super-SpAds’ that evolved
The kind of ‘super-SpAds’ that evolved under the Labour government, usually based in Downing Street or the Treasury, were entirely absent – from the point of view of environmental
The kind of ‘super-SpAds’ that evolved under the Labour government, usually based in Downing Street or the Treasury, were entirely absent – from the point of view of environmental policy, which requires cross-government action, that’s a drawback. In practice, no one at No 10 was responsible for promoting green policies, though this was mitigated a li le by the expansion of the policy unit in early 2011.
I’ve wri en elsewhere about the diﬃculties of reach agreement, lackedministersdepartmentsbetweenbrokeringrolelessofahaveplayedSpAds and because we the authority to at least over major issues pursuing the green agenda across government. One of the real pleasures in working for Chris Huhne was his willingness to take on other departments was his willingness to take on other departments – particularly the Treasury – and his ability to win the arguments. As James Murray’s BusinessGreen blog said a er Huhne’s resignation: “So long, Chris pursuing the green agenda across government. One of the real pleasures in working for Chris Huhne was his willingness to take on other departments – particularly the Treasury – and his ability to win the arguments. As James Murray’s BusinessGreen blog said a er Huhne’s resignation: “So long, Chris Huhne, and thanks for all the fights” – over climate targets, renewable energy, the Green Investment Bank, and many more. We also got steadily be er at working together with Lib Dem ministers in other key departments, such as Transport, CLG and BIS. Although there are some good green Tory ministers and MPs, they’re in a minority in their own party; this being the “the greenest government ever” is largely thanks to Lib Dem eﬀorts.
Having said all this, it was notable how few of my arguments were conducted along party political lines. The departments I had least trouble with were DfID and Defra; those which required much more time-consuming discussions were BIS and the Treasury. I’m sure the previous government experienced exactly the same tensions. However, on green policies, DECC, Defra and DfID are always likely to share more of a common agenda than any of them would with BIS or the Treasury. For example, media reports suggest that Defra ministers were just as unhappy as we were with the chancellor’s decision to a ack the “burden” of environmental regulation (despite an almost complete lack of evidence of any negative eﬀects) in late 2011.
SpAds are best known for their relationships with the media. Most cabinet ministers have one SpAds dedicated to the role. We did it diﬀerently. My colleague Joel Kenrick and I both worked on policy, and he also looked a er media relations. My other main role was party liaison. It’s particularly important in a coalition, where inevitably the government ends up doing things one party or the other doesn’t much like, for the party grassroots to know and
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44 | May 2012 | Total Politics
AmberElliott talkstothe communities secretaryabout refusepolicies,the
Londonmayoral electionsand hisredroots
C h r i s t o p h e r
F u r l o n g
‘You’d have thought that i’d suggested that councils slaughter the first-born. We’re daring to say the emperor has actually got no clothes on, and that the public wants something different’
Eric Pickles loves bins. This cannot be stressed enough.
“Just consider this,” begins the communities secretary. “You come home one night. You’re confused, a little tired, maybe. You eat a strawberry yoghurt, and you’re a decent person so you probably washed out the pot. Then, in a moment of emotion – perhaps euphoria because it was a particularly nice yoghurt – you put it in the wrong bin. The forces of the Talibin – the ‘Binquisition’ – fall upon you and fine you to a greater extent than if you’d gone into the shop and stolen the yoghurt. That strikes me as utterly ludicrous.”
He pauses for dramatic effect. “Now, if you’d had an all-night yoghurt party – let’s say 400 crates of yoghurt were consumed – and you encourage your folks to throw them out onto the pavement, then we would fine you because you would have annoyed your neighbours.”
Pickles recently revealed that almost half of all English councils have bid for a slice of his £250m refuse fund – for ‘binnovation’ on waste (Pickles isn’t the only one who can produce trash puns). But a separate survey for the SundayTelegraph claimed that of the 184 councils polled, 96 said they would not ask for money – and only one wanted cash to bring back bin rounds.
Pickles admits there has been “a lot of resistance” to his plans. But he has strong words for those who remain unconvinced. “You would have thought that I’d issued some weird pronouncement… that I was suggesting that
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SALUTING THE FLAG
Before becoming one nation, Britain’s countries had separate national flags. Nick Groom discovers how the Union Jack became our national standard
In 1603, James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. It was a union of crowns that came about a er the death of Queen Elizabeth I. The Virgin Queen had announced on her deathbed: “I will have no rascal to succeed me. Who should succeed me but a king?” King James of Scotland was duly nominated her heir and became the first king of a united Great Britain. And it soon became apparent that the newlyunited kingdom required a new flag.
Before union, England had taken the cross of St George (a red cross on a white background – a flag that also represented the principality of Wales via its adoption by the Tudors) as its national flag – while Scotland flew the diagonal cross of St Andrew (a white saltire against
62 | May 2012 | Total Politics blue). But the newly-united country needed a new symbol both to proclaim Britishness at sea, and to help the people think of themselves as one nation.
needed a new symbol both to proclaim Britishness at sea, and to help the people
King James initially ordered that ships should fly the flags of England and Scotland
King James initially ordered that ships should fly the flags of England and Scotland side by side. This advice was not only impossible – one flag was inevitably always higher than the other, either on the same pole or simply on a taller mast – but was also fraught with more subtle diﬃculties. Flying one flag above another was a naval signal to show that an enemy had been defeated. Inevitably, English vessels flew St George over St Andrew, while Sco ish ships did the opposite. Each taunted the other as a defeated enemy, so it was proposed that a single flag would resolve this incessant bickering.
impossible – one flag was inevitably always higher than the other, either on the same pole or simply on a taller mast – but was also fraught with more subtle diﬃculties. Flying one flag above another was a naval signal to show that an enemy had been defeated. Inevitably, English vessels flew St George over St Andrew, while Sco ish
The job of designing the new flag was given to the Earl of No ingham, who had been one of the commissioners for the union of the two countries. He came up with several designs (see above), including placing the cross of St Andrew in the middle of the cross of St George, or having four St Andrew crosses on a St George flag, one in each corner. His preferred solution, however, was to place the two crosses beside each other. This was conventional in heraldry for indicating marriage, with the male arms on the le and the female on the given to the Earl of No ingham, who had been one of the commissioners for the union of the two countries. He came up with several designs (see above), including placing the cross of St Andrew in the middle of the cross of St George, or having four St Andrew crosses on a St George flag, one in each corner. His preferred solution, however, was to place the two crosses beside each other. This was conventional in heraldry for indicating marriage, with the male arms on the le and the female on the right. King James was very keen to see right. King James was very keen to see the union as a marriage “cemented by love”, and he even had the declaration “what God has joined let no man separate” inscribed on his new crown. No ingham agreed, saying of the side-bythe union as a marriage “cemented by love”, and he even had the declaration “what God has joined let no man separate” inscribed on his new crown. No ingham agreed, saying of the side-by-
Orary ib lL
C a r l
S o u z a side design: “In my poor opinion, this will be the most fi est, for this is like man and wife.”
The only problem with the marriage design, however, was that Scotland was positioned as the wife in marriage, ‘impaled’ (in heraldic terms) by England. The Scots were having none of this, so No ingham’s innovative solution was to combine or “interlace” the respective national banners. In simple terms, this meant placing a white-bordered cross of St George over the white and blue cross of St Andrew.
However, this design also provoked fury north of the border because now the cross of St George was “imposed” on that of St Andrew, much as the English had been imposed on the Scots. The Sco ish Privy Council warned: “This will breed some heat and miscontentment betwixt your Majesties subjects.” The Scots also objected to a design that appeared to chop the Sco ish flag into four pieces, although it is worth bearing in mind that in heraldry the top le -hand part of the flag is the most prestigious quadrant, and that this was occupied by the colours of St Andrew.
Despite this technical supremacy, and the fact that the flag has been ordered and endorsed by a Sco ish king, the Scots remained unappeased and Sco ish heralds produced their own designs. One of these was accepted as an alternative for Sco ish shipping, and is still occasionally seen elsewhere. In this variant, St Andrew’s cross is placed over St George’s cross. As far away as the West Indies this compromise caused “great quarrels” among British sailors, who, not being experts in heraldry, simply saw either England or Scotland in the most prominent central position of each flag. It was not until parliamentary union a century later in 1707 that the dispute had blown itself out and the flag was finally accepted.
Whichever version was used was known as the “Union Flag”, and many much prefer this name today. But there is no historical justification for this preference. The flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been known as the “Union Jack” since the seventeenth century. ‘Jack’ may refer to King James, who was known as Jacques or Jacobus (hence ‘Jacobean’), or to the padded or armoured jerkins worn by soldiers on which national colours were emblazoned: these were ‘jacks’, from which the modern ‘jacket’ is derived. There may be some maritime influence here as well, as all royal ships fly the Union Jack, as a ‘jack’ from the jackstaﬀ, a small vertical pole. Indeed, it is only at sea that it’s worth distinguishing between the Union Jack (on the jackstaﬀ ) and the Union Flag. An Admiral of the Fleet, for example, flies a Union Flag from the main topmast, and Union Flags are flown if the monarch is onboard, or when a court martial is taking place. For the majority of us, however, the flag is the
“Union Jack”, and has been so since the 17th century. Only a misinformed pedant would try and rename it a er some 400 years.
The flag of James is more or less recognisable as the Union Jack of today, but lacks the red diagonals stripes. These derive from the cross of St Patrick, added when Ireland became part of the Union in 1801, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This legislation was forced by William Pi , who feared that Napoleon would use Ireland as a strategic base from which to launch an invasion of Great Britain. It also required the redesign of the Union Jack to recognise the new partner in the union.
But the diagonal red cross of St Patrick was not simply placed symmetrically over St Andrew’s cross. Instead, it was set asymmetrically: lower on the le side of the flag and higher on the right. This was a reminder that Scotland was the senior member of the union over Ireland. Hence, as all Scots know, the Union Jack is raised with the broad, white diagonal band at the top of the flag on the side nearest the flagpole (the “cream rises”, or the “thickest goes to the top”). It has also meant that, ever since 1801, the Union Jack has been unique among flags of the world; it is mistakenly flown upside-down as o en as it is flown correctly. When Britain became a member of the Common Market in 1973, for example, the Union Jack was accidently flown upside-down over the EEC buildings in Brussels – traditionally either a sign of distress or an insult to the sovereign.
Since 1801 the flag has remained fairly stable in design, although neither the dimensions nor colours were formally stipulated, and the St Andrew blue grew progressively darker in the nineteenth century as the dye used needed to withstand global sea voyages. Nevertheless, in its 1801 form, the Union Jack remains a potent image. It will characterise both the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations this year. And yet these displays of Union-Jackery will also take place against a political backdrop of possible Sco ish independence, and so it’s certainly worth asking what will happen to the Union Jack if Scotland goes independent. Will the saltire of St Andrew be removed from the flag?
The symbolism of the Union Jack is, in fact, already anomalous, as the cross of St Patrick was retained in the design a er the Republic of Ireland was established. Strictly speaking, while Northern Ireland remains a union province it is not a separate kingdom and therefore should not be aﬀorded a separate status on the flag. But as Éire did not adopt the cross of St Patrick as its national flag in 1937 – preferring instead to hoist the Irish Tricolour – there was no pressing need to remove St Patrick’s cross from the Union Jack. At the very least, then, this should remind us that the Union Jack
The diagonal red cross of St Patrick was set lower on the left side of the flag and higher on the right, a reminder that Scotland was the senior member of the union is not a simplistic statement about the territories that form the
Left top Early designs from the Earl of Nottingham Left bottom Naomi Campbell models a Union Jack shirt by Clements Riberio Below the flag flies on Brighton beach
United Kingdom – not least because it appears to overlook Wales. Rather, the flag is a complex symbol that describes the history and compromises over centuries of international relations.
Admi edly the saltire of St Andrew is already recognised as, eﬀectively, Scotland’s national flag, and would surely be adopted as such in the case of independence, but even this does not mean that it could be removed from the Union Jack. Sco ish independence does not entail republicanism; the country would remain part of the Commonwealth on the model of Australia
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Regulars Letters 5 Diary 6 Graeme Wilson of The Sun Polling 8 Andrew Hawkins on the welfare state Blogger writes 9 Welshman Arfon Jones The idea 10 Reform’s Dale Bassett on academies The insider 11 George Pascoe-Watson reveals No 10’s plans, from growth to Lords reform, for the Queen’s Speech Debate 12 Is UKIP an electoral threat? Nigel Farage MEP and Helen Grant MP go head-to-head Felicity Parkes 13 Our anonymous researcher has selfish reasons for supporting plans to charge for parliamentary tours Events 14 The dissenter 16 How Ed Miliband’s focus on the new generation is alienating some MPs Data 17 Ministerial profile 18 Chris Grayling MP MP of the month 20 Robert Halfon MP
P a ul
Ri d e r
Total Campaigns Wordplay 22 Former speechwriter Simon Lancaster crunches the numbers on ministers’ speeches Mobile democracy 24 Smartphone technology that is revolutionising fundraising Drinks with… 26 Stonewall’s Ruth Hunt
Features Advising government 28 Chris Huhne’s former adviser reveals what life is like as a SpAd Mental health 32 Kirsty Buchanan on why Westminster must address a hidden problem Bad plans for planning 34 Stanley Johnson on the environmental impact of the Budget The battle for London 36 A photospread featuring the three main mayoral candidates Defending the cyber realm 38 The dangers of online warfare Health special 41 Where did the coalition’s healthcare reforms go wrong and how can they win back the medical professions? Eric Pickles 44 The former Tory party chairman talks ‘binnovation’ and his Trotskyist past with Amber Elliott
COVER STORY PAGE 50 CHUKA UMUNNA He’s been
likened to Barack Obama, but is Tony Blair the better comparison? The shadow business secretary talks to Amber Elliott about New Labour, his love for London and how he’s not opposed to wealth
SPECIAL SECTION Costing a packet 56 Cancer Research and Total Politics team up to consider the case for introducing plain packaging legislation for tobacco products in the UK
Total History Raise the flag 62 The history of the Union Jack Debate from the vault 64 The 1886 Commons debate on ‘peak coal’ History of one object 65 Notes on the assassination of Spencer Perceval, 1958 Memorabilia 65 Margot James MP They were also MPs 66 Sir Thomas More
Total Life Book review 68 Iain Wright MP on Surrender:How BritishIndustryGaveUpTheGhost and Robert Buckland MP on ThinkTank Brought to book 69 Jesse Norman MP My old book 69 Jacob Rees-Mogg MP Question Time watchalong 70 Caroline Crampton reviews a new way of watching a BBC classic Researchers’ stories 71 Hinterland 72 Siobhan McMahon MSP Top ten party political tunes 72 Lunch with… 74 Stewart Jackson MP
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