Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Whitehall Mandarin

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 18, 2011

It was only just recently that the expression Whitehall mandarin was brought to the attention of Idiomation.  Unfamiliar with the Whitehall reference but familiar with what mandarins are, Idiomation decided to research this expression.

On January 12, 2011, the Guardian newspaper in the UK published an article written by Hugh Muir that stated:

In came Lord Adonis, carrying with him, many thought, the airs of the minister he once was. He wants the institute to do policy, while Lord Sainsbury wanted it to focus on improving Whitehall‘s competence. Now, to the bemusement of staff, Lord A has gone off on a round-England jaunt to promote the government’s plan to impose elected mayors on the big cities. And he was missed last week, when the institute had the chance to slam the government over select committee criticism of the Eric Pickles chaotic bonfire of the quangos. All they could muster up in the boss’s absence was former mandarin Ian Magee, whose performance on the Today programme did little to rouse the troops. Much muttering among the lower ranks.

It was because of Hugh Muir that Idiomation began to wonder what it meant when someone in government in the UK was referred to as a mandarin.  The Glasgow Herald ran an article by Allan Laing on April 8, 1981 entitled “Great Escape Veteran Still Fighting Prison Camp Pay Battle” in which he wrote:

A committee of ex-Servicemen has been formed under the chairmanship of the Earl of Kimberley in the hopes that the Whitehall mandarins can find the resources to honour what many consider to be the last — and one of the most important — of Britain’s wartime debts.  The campaign has already prompted the Government to carry out an investigation into the PoW claims. Mr. Geoffrey Pattie, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, has given a pledge that he will announce the results of the inquiry “at a later date.”

Scotland’s evening newspaper, the Evening Times, reported on the amendments to the Finance Bill on July 2, 1968 in an article entitled, “Why Not Largs?” It read in part:

Hotels in Millport are exempted from the levy of 37s 6d per man, 18s 9d per woman; but hotels in Largs still have to pay.  Troon is exempt, but not Ardrossan. And so it goes on … Clearly M.P.s will have to start all over again and try to knock sense into the Whitehall mandarins who thought up this ill-considered scheme. The idea may have been sound in intention, but it has been badly bungled all the way in execution.  Scotland depends heavily on tourism for revenue. 

Austin Coates published a light-hearted account of his time as a magistrate dealing with two legal systems and cultures in Hong Kong during the 1950s.  The book was entitled, “Myself A Mandarin.”

It is said that the concept of the welfare state was started in London in 1940 by a group of bureaucrats under the leadership of Sir William Beveridge.  This group was comprised of Whitehall mandarins for the most part and although they did not originate the idea of the welfare state, they built upon the idea as set forth by Otto von Bismarck (1815 – 1898). 

However, the Whitehall mandarins existed prior to 1940 as shown by an article in the January 2, 1929 edition of the Calgary Daily Herald in an article entitled, “Soccer Teams Requested To Hold Standing: Unusual Request By Foreign Office Causes Amusement And Scorn.”  The article reported that:

The Daily Express severely criticizes the foreign office, saying “the views of the Whitehall mandarins seems to be that unless our footballers are fairly certain of winning, British prestige would receive an irreparable blow, the peace of Europe would be endangered and Sir Austen Chamberlain would have to do whatever Stressemann told him.  It does not matter in the least whether we beat the Germans at soccer or are beaten by them, but it does matter a great deal that we should be free and willing to meet them in the friendly strifes and rivalries of peace.”

By the time 1925 arrived, British barrister, Baron Claud Schuster, had spent a decade as Permanent Secretary in the Lord Chancellor’s Office and was described as a Whitehall Mandarin.  Schuster’s contacts and service led to greater influence over policy decisions than a Permanent Secretary normally would have had.

The term mandarin is associated with the concept of the scholar-official who is not only educated in the literary arts and Confucian learning but who also performs civil service duties. In China, mandarins were selected between the years 605 through to 1905 on merit by way of an extremely rigorous imperial examination.  In the western world, the word mandarin refers to any civil servant — although it’s most often a senior civil servant — and usually the reference is in a satirical context.

Whitehall is a road that is recognized as the centre of Her Majesty’s Government in Britain; the road is lined with government buildings housing various government departments and ministries.  Because of this, Whitehall has been used as an overall term to refer to any governmental administration in the U.K.

With regards to the civil service, open competitive examination was introduced in Great Britain in 1854.  At that time, the phrase “civil service” was applied to the most officials serving the state in a professional capacity.  It is most likely that the expression Whitehall mandarin followed shortly after competitive examinations were introduced.

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