Ministers just love messing with the Machinery of Government

War is Over: the War Office gave way to the Ministry of Defence.

Michael Gove, truly the main beneficiary of the recent reshuffle, has stamped his mark on Government with the easiest and most obvious tool to hand: renaming his department. Overnight, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was conjured from Gove’s fevered imagination.

The DLUHC is the latest incarnation of a department known variously as the DETR, DLTR, ODPM, DCLG, MHCLG and originally from 1970 to 1997 the Department of the Environment (DoE). It was said that the DoE occupied the best headquarters of any department, because to be in their ugly modernist towers on Marsham Street was to be in the only place in London you couldn’t see them. The changing initials reflected the changing responsibilities — add a bit of transport, recognise the regions, subtract the environment, or in the case of ODPM, occupy John Prescott.

The old joke is that a career civil servant could have worked in a bewildering multiplicity of departments — Department for Education and Science, Department for Education, Department for Education and Employment, Department for Education and Skills, Department for Children, Schools and Families, and back to the Department for Education — all without ever leaving their desk.

Sometimes department names reflect genuine shifts in policy. The incoming Blair Government renamed the fusty-sounding Department for National Heritage (DNH) as the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). Less Constable, more Cool Britannia. The Department for International Development (DFID) showed the Labour Government’s enhanced commitment to internationalism and justice; its abolition by the Conservatives showed the opposite, according to critics. The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was created to reflect Gordon Brown’s desire to do more on the climate catastrophe.

The old Department for Health and Social Security (DHSS), one of the few government departments to be immortalised in a Wham! lyric, became the Department for Health when social security moved to the new Department for Social Security. Health secretary Patricia Hewitt considered rebranding her domain as the Department for Health and Social Care, but was dissuaded. That change in nomenclature would have to wait until 2018.

In 2005, disaster was averted by Alan Johnson when some bright Blairite spark suggested renaming the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry. The no-nonsense Johnson pointed out to Tony Blair this would soon become known as ‘DIPPY’ or even worse.

The names of Government departments also reflect our changing times and national moods. We don’t have an India Office anymore, or a Dominions Office or Colonial Office. The War Office became the Ministry of Defence in 1964. The old War Office building on Horse Guards has been sold to make a luxury hotel, of course. The once-mighty Wales Office and Scotland Office are much reduced after devolution. In the future, perhaps we will have a department for happiness, a department for robot affairs, and a Mars Office.

Sometimes the ghosts linger. We still talk about getting an ‘MOT’ on our vehicles. Farmers still may refer, without much affection, to ‘MAFF’. We fear the icy hand of the Inland Revenue, or relish a letter from the GPO. But who now remembers the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA), the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), or the Department for Administrative Affairs (DAA)? Okay, that last one is the fictional department in Yes Minister.

Why do Governments change the names of their departments so frequently? The answer is the same as the answer to why cats lick their nether regions — because they can. Taking a spanner to the machinery of government is one thing a government, clattered by events and hampered by misfortune, can do. It shows that something is being done, even if the only beneficiaries are the companies supplying new door signs and stationery.

According to the Institute for Government, Gordon Brown reconfigured 11 departments, Blair 19, Thatcher 9 and Major 6, but the stand-out winner of the Messing About with Whitehall cup was Harold Wilson, who recast 34 government departments during his two stints at №10. Remember the ill-fated Department for Economic Affairs (DEA), designed to rival the treasury, and soon crushed by it? Or the Ministry of Technology, with the Orwellian abbreviation MinTech, where once Tony Benn did battle with the establishment?

The civil service is enormously adept at machinery of government changes, creating new departments from dust like Prometheus, and making others evaporate like a rat in the Sopranos. But what every minister learns, as Michael Gove surely will, is that changing the door sign is not the same as changing the country.

Paul Richards is a writer and former special adviser.