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This article is taken from PN Review 39, Volume 11 Number 1, July - August 1984.

Clerkes & Tories: Sisson's essays on aspects of government Michael Cayley

In a recent essay, A Word of Apology, Sisson allies himself with those who 'see the world piece-meal, and in their better moments claim only to see the pieces before their eyes'. Not for him, he claims, grand philosophy.

This spirit of dealing with things as they are rather than with theoretical principles is paradoxically the manifestation of a broad philosophy - one close to the traditional English outlook. In a meeting attended by one of my civil service colleagues, a French official commented wryly, 'We are not a pragmatic nation'. By and large the UK is a pragmatic country, whose inhabitants grow impatient with abstract argument. Political debate, both inside and outside Parliament, pays lip service to the theoretical basis and logical consistency of policies, but concentrates on their consequence and effect. In the last few years, as both Conservative and Labour parties have moved further away from the centre ground, there has been some hardening into more doctrinaire attitudes; and even in the heyday of Butskellism there was always some debate on principle: but for large areas of policy the key question remains not 'is this right?' but 'will this work?'

For Charles Sisson this approach lies at the heart of the function of the civil service administrator. Reviewing the autobiography of a former senior official, Sir John Maud, he puts his perception at its most sardonically provocative: 'If he had a weakness, it must have been the delusion that he was doing ...


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