Lessons in Mandarin


Very occasionally as a Civil Servant I was required to provide a technical contribution to Parliamentary Questions (PQs), at a time when PQs really did allow Members of Parliament to hold the Government to account. The only role my contribution had to a PQ was to complement the response being prepared by a Mandarin. Anything that I may have written would have been lost in the revisions they underwent before reaching the likes of a Bernard Woolley or a Sir Humphrey Appelby. I was reminded of this when I revisited an old paper on Civil Service Mandarin.

An article written by Robert Shrimsley for the Financial Times in 2004, parodies the words of former cabinet secretary Lord Robin Butler when he reported on the role of the intelligence services in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Shrimsley’s parody translated the ‘observations’ made by Lord Butler when he reported on the way John Scarlett (chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and next MI6 chief) strayed too far into political waters, providing A Masterclass in Civil Service Mandarin.

Butler Mandarin: “Without any implied criticism of the present or past chairmen … we see a strong case for the post of chairman being held by someone with experience of dealing with ministers in a very senior role and who is demonstrably beyond influence and thus probably in his last post.”
Translation: “The chairman of the JIC was clearly too junior, too inexperienced in the ways of ministers and too eager to toady to his political masters to secure his next job.”

Butler Mandarin: “While not arguing for a particular approach to the language of Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessments . . . we recommend the intelligence community review their conventions again to see if there would be advantage in refreshing them.”
Translation: “Only a moron would use language like that. The existing rules need to be overhauled.”

Butler Mandarin: “We do not suggest that there is – or should be – an ideal or unchangeable system of collective government, still less that procedures are in aggregate less effective now than in earlier times. However, we are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the government procedures . . . reduces the scope for informed collective political judgement.”
Translation:  “The changes to the style of government instituted by Tony Blair helped cause this cock-up. Things were much better in my day.”

Butler Mandarin: “It may be worth considering the appointment of a distinguished scientist to undertake a part-time role as adviser to the cabinet office.”
Translation: “For God’s sake, let’s get someone who knows what he’s talking about.”

Butler Mandarin: “The JIC, with commendable motives, took responsibility for the dossier.”
Translation: “In trying to help, the JIC really screwed up.”

Butler Mandarin: “Our review has shown the vital importance of effective scrutiny and validation of intelligence sources . . . We urge the chief of SIS to ensure that this task is properly resourced and organised to achieve that result.”
Translation: “It would be nice if MI6 took on a few people who know what they are doing.”

But it is when Lord Butler raises the prospect of Mr Scarlett’s being forced out of his new job – while making clear that he is calling for no such thing – that one sees the true subtleties of the dialect in the hands of a master.

Butler Mandarin: “We realise that our conclusions may provoke calls for Mr Scarlett to withdraw from his appointment as the next chief of SIS. We greatly hope he will not do so.”
Translation:  “There is more than enough in this report to prompt calls for his resignation but don’t try pinning it on me. And besides, as a former head of the civil service, I’m reluctant to draw too direct a link between error and accountability.”

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