Clare Short’s early career in the civil service afforded her invaluable insight into the machinery of government and inspired her to become an MP.
In October 1970 I took up my first job and went to work on long term prison planning in the Home Office. I was 24. I had graduated in 1968 and spent two years doing research but then decided academia was not for me and started to submit job applications.
I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do, but I had taken the exams to enter the Civil Service. I didn’t see myself as a neutral and therefore did not expect to remain a civil servant for life, but I was very curious to see the British Establishment at work.
I chose the Home Office because it was responsible for immigration (I had strong feelings about racism), prisons (a student friend had recently gone to prison as a result of a stupid jape) and in those days Northern Ireland (my father came from Crossmaglen and I was well aware of the unhappiness of the province).
In those days the graduate entry was small in number and it was a favoured careers option for Oxbridge graduates. I soon found myself surrounded by largely male, public school educated colleagues who stepped forward to open doors for me and changed sides walking down the street so that they were nearer the road. I decided very early that I had better go shopping for longer skirts and that I shouldn’t ask people if they would like to have dinner when I meant lunch in the staff canteen!
At that time Labour had just lost the 1970 election and Edward Heath had come to power. I found a Home Office of humane and intelligent people deeply troubled by the rise of the prison population to an all time high of 40,000. In looking through files seeking possible sites for new prison building, I found minutes in a girlish hand from the previous Parliamentary Under Secretary, Shirley Williams.
The Assistant Principal grade to which I belonged was a training grade, so after a year I moved to Criminal Law reform and devoted my time to a review of the law on vagrancy and street offences. Old files contained a letter from a teacher who had got into trouble and ended up in prison. He wrote to the Home Secretary to say that the prisons were simply training grounds for theft and robbery and a young Winston Churchill had written that the letter was important and that he wanted a meeting to discuss it.
A year later I found myself at Lunar House dealing with MPs’ correspondence as they forwarded large numbers of letters from their angry constituents who were critical of Robert Carr and the government that had stood by the promise given to the Ugandan Asians and allowed them to come to the UK when Idi Amin expelled them from Uganda.
My next job took me back to Whitehall and I became Private Secretary to Mark Carlisle. He was the Minister of State responsible for the Criminal Department. We got on well but the mood of the office changed during the three day week. Business ground to a halt and we picked our way down the back stairs of the office lit by hurricane lamps. Then Edward Health called an election over who governed Britain and we sat in empty private offices with nothing but the manifestos of the parties coming through.
The election produced a new group of Ministers with Roy Jenkins felling disgruntled as a second term Home Secretary. After a short time I was promoted and went to work in the Urban Deprivation Unit, a new department established by Robert Carr designed to analyse the nature of the problem of the inner cities.
After a year or so I resigned and went back to Birmingham to work in a project promoting inter faith dialogue and support for victims of racial injustice. I had enjoyed my six years in the civil service and came to greatly respect the intelligence and deep sense of service of those who worked there. I left because I am a person of strong conviction. I had behaved as a proper neutral in the civil service but having met Ministers and spent time in the Commons, I realised that people like me could be an MP.
And then in 1997, I took responsibility for establishing the new Department for International Development. I got on with and respected my officials. I was neither scared of their intelligence nor suspicious of their neutrality. We soon became one of the happier and more efficient departments in Whitehall.
It was when I heard some of my Cabinet colleagues gripe about their officials and their wish to interfere in appointments that I realised what an enormous advantage I had had in working in the civil service and fully understanding both the quality of the people who commit themselves to public service and the underlying ground rules that keep the system working.