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Is Civil Service Reform Overdue?

Written by Nick Busvine

In this article, former Foreign Office official Nick Busvine re-visits the issue of civil service impartiality and concludes that the civil service has become increasingly politicised in recent years. Ideally, the civil service leadership should address this issue internally. Government could try to strengthen the requirement to observe the Civil Service Code. Failing that, a US-style political appointee system may become inevitable.

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I began writing for this site in 2019 in response to the extraordinary establishment reaction to Brexit.  As a former official, I have written regularly on the theme of civil service impartiality and competence.  In August 2019, for example, I argued that ‘the civil service has become more politicised over recent decades and that there is a wide pro-remain consensus among civil servants. There are circumstances… in which civil servants can become consciously or unconsciously politicised in their approach to implementing government policy, which is bad for our civil service culture.’ I recalled having been told to my face by former colleagues that people should not have been allowed to vote on something they could not possibly understand, that Brexiteers were ‘stupid’, bigoted, right-wing populists and so on. I cited one serving senior official (a closet leaver) who told me in 2017 that anyone outing themselves as a Leave voter in his particular department was liable to be – his word – ‘persecuted’.

Under the disastrous Theresa May administration, officials charged with delivering Brexit might reasonably be expected to argue that in negotiating a frankly awful deal, they were merely following government orders.  They might also have told themselves that 52/48 was hardly a decisive referendum margin on an issue of such profound importance to the UK.  However, the astonishing victory for the Brexit Party in the European elections of 2019 was the clearest signal that the referendum vote had not been a flash in the pan. With the Tory party facing annihilation, May had no choice but to go. That should have been the moment when the penny finally dropped for Remain-sympathising civil servants, as well as the rest of the Remain establishment. This did not prove to be the case.  The country was then treated to an extraordinary constitutional drama in which the Supreme Court conjured up a new law to prevent the proroguing of Parliament, the Speaker broke with precedent to allow MPs to usurp the role of the government in proposing legislation which resulted in the so-called ‘Surrender Act’ that hobbled Boris Johnson’s ability to negotiate effectively with Brussels, and a large cross-section of MPs did their best to block the Prime Minister’s attempts to call a general election.  When an election was at last permitted, the voters gave another unambiguous endorsement to ‘getting Brexit done’.

There remains a nagging concern, at least in my mind, that the establishment reaction to Brexit constituted a crossing of the line from the proper to the improper, from the democratic to the anti-democratic.  Of course, hardline Remainer politicians, think-tankers, journalists and voters are perfectly entitled to make a public case for staying firmly entrenched in Brussels’ regulatory orbit as a precursor to eventually re-joining the EU.  That is their democratic right. The issue for me is whether any elements of the senior leadership of the civil service are consciously or unconsciously working to support such an agenda – which is clearly political.

I think part of the problem comes from an establishment mindset that has developed over the past quarter of a century or so about what it is that constitutes the national interest.  Put simply, if we – the establishment – are all agreed on what the national interest is, then one might be forgiven for concluding that cleaving to that national interest rises above politics and is, in that sense, impartial.  During the Blair years a comfortable establishment consensus view emerged about what was right for Britain. That vision encompassed elements such as membership of the EU, globalism, unrestrained immigration, agricultural protectionism and the power of big government.  When he became Prime Minister, David Cameron implicitly acknowledged this when he let it be known that he was the ‘heir to Blair’. The establishment vision of what was right for Britain was dealt a shattering blow by the Brexit referendum. The keepers of the visionary Blairite/Cameroon flame were utterly horrified at what they saw as a deeply misguided populist revolt.  I wrote in 2019 about the dangers posed by this sort of groupthink to democratic government decision-making.

Did the decisive 2019 election result change attitudes among Remain-minded civil servants?  I have had many conversations since those elections with serving and recently retired senior officials.  Based on this unscientific survey, I would say that Brexit is still widely considered to be deeply damaging to the UK.  I think it is also fair to say that Boris Johnson’s government and, most notably, the Prime Minister himself have been viewed with scarcely concealed disdain.  It has not been unusual to hear suggestions that Boris and some of his closest Cabinet allies are both mad and bad.  Unsurprisingly, the resignation of Boris Johnson has been greeted with unrestrained glee by large chunks of the senior civil service.

My own impression, based on conversations with civil service contacts over the years, is that the damage limitation exercise approach to Brexit has been extended more broadly to containing the ambitions of the current government (despite its huge mandate) until another election brings ‘people we can do business with’ back to the room.

But this is only an impression – and is it actually fair?  Do the private attitudes of a section of our civil service leadership actually matter?  They are, as citizens, entitled to take a view.  The issue is whether privately held political views are in any way impacting on their duty to deliver impartial advice and policy delivery.  As Kemi Badenoch so eloquently put it during her Tory leadership campaign, government decision-making involves hard choices and accepting difficult trade-offs. It is the job of civil servants to explain clearly what the consequences – both good and bad – of particular policy decisions might be. Once a decision has been made under our democratic system, however, the machinery of the civil service ought to move seamlessly to implementation.

My assumption (hopefully not naïve) continues to be that the majority of our civil servants strive to be impartial.  I understand, for example, that officials concerned with driving policy around the highly controversial Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) Bill are doing an excellent job.  In the final analysis, only Ministers will know day-to-day whether and to what extent they are encountering political resistance to policy implementation.  What is troubling to outside observers is that reports still surface regularly in the public domain that suggest that concerns about civil service impartiality continue to be justified.

In recent days, for example, we have seen reports (such as this) of the government accusing civil servants of blocking Brexit laws, with Cabinet Ministers expressing concern that civil servants are ‘standing in the way’ of government policy by ‘dragging their feet’ over enacting policies that they disagree with.  There have been multiple reports of resistance from the Treasury to the scrapping of EU regulation.  In one recent FT piece, the reason given by senior officials for this was not anti-Brexit bias, but rather government political weakness and a cabinet at odds with itself.

This reverse divide and rule argument for resistance to government policy can also be discerned in resistance to ministerial attempts to reduce the attachment of civil service leaders to wokery.  In June last year, the Permanent Under Secretary of the Home Office, Matthew Rycroft, was accused of attempting to ‘frustrate’ the Government’s anti-woke agenda by telling colleagues in his capacity as the civil service race champion that there was no need to ‘slavishly’ follow official policy. Rycroft explained: ‘I do think that there are some examples where actually we can say, particularly if there are a range of views from ministers, that we can carry on doing things that we were previously doing.’ This prompted one of the civil servants on the call to complain to The Telegraph that, ‘Every civil servant comes into government to selflessly serve and support their ministers, whichever party they are from. I, like many of my colleagues on the call, was shocked and appalled to hear one of our most senior civil servants imply we can pick and choose which ministerial steers we prioritise, based on our own whims.’

The bizarre and worrying adherence of civil service leadership to woke issues can best be seen not only as costly and wasteful displacement activity by those unwilling or unable to focus on actual delivery, but also as a non-impartial statement of political opposition to this Conservative government. As I warned last year, identity politics and impartiality are not compatible.

Another cause for concern lies in the apparent disparity of treatment of civil servants alleged to have been in breach of security rules.  A recent Telegraph article highlighted the heavy handed (and frankly terrifying) treatment of an official suspected of leaking diplomatic emails revealing former UK Ambassador to the US Kim (now Lord) Daroch’s views on President Trump. The investigation was subsequently dropped.  Lord Daroch now chairs the Remain lobbying group Best for Britain.  The article points out that the treatment of the official suspected of the Daroch papers leak stands in marked contrast to the handling of the far more serious – and proven – security breach committed by the senior FCO official Angus Lapsley. The article points out that Lapsley – who has made little secret of his pro-Remain views – ‘faced no charges and was moved to the Foreign Office, where he still works today with his security clearance intact.’  This site published a piece on the Lapsley affair late last year pointing out that a whole range of questions remain unanswered about what Lapsley did – and why he did it.

So, what of the future? In yet another example of what Remainers would see as ‘the wrong result’, it looks very likely that Boris Johnson will be replaced as Prime Minister by Liz Truss – who has announced her determination to drive through on delivering the Tory 2019 manifesto.  She has also reaffirmed her commitment to the NIP Bill.  In one sense, we will have a government that is committed and united on Brexit delivery.  This will make it more difficult for senior civil servants to plead cabinet division as an excuse for Brexit non-compliance.  The difficulty for Truss is that the economic impact of Covid lockdowns and the Ukraine war could blow up her government and provide an excuse for more damage limitation Brexit foot-dragging from those civil servants hoping for an opposition election victory.

My own conclusion continues to be that there has been a significant politicisation of the civil service in recent years.  This represents a worrying culture shift.  Embedding and preserving the right culture is critical to the success of any organisation.  The responsibility for this lies squarely with the leadership of an organisation.  One would hope that our civil service leadership cadre spend rather more time examining their own and departmental unconscious political bias than they do to perceived race and gender bias issues.  The Civil Service Code is excellent.  But how often are staff trained on it?  To what extent do our most senior civil servants really feel bound by it?

To restore the culture that once characterised our civil service as one – if not the – finest in the world, our civil service leadership will have to acknowledge that something has gone wrong – and that its culture of impartiality has been undermined.  If, as one suspects, there is a failure to accept that this is the case, then the prospect of external reform having to be imposed becomes more real.  This could take the form of a mandated and more rigorous application of the Civil Service Code. However, the politicisation of the civil service may now have become so entrenched that there is no effective way to root it out.  If that is true, then the government should consider making an honest virtue out of reality by adopting a US-style system that specifically allows for political appointees to hold senior civil service – as opposed to merely political advisory – positions.

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About the author

Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1982-2011. During his time in the FCO, he served overseas in Kuala Lumpur, Damascus, Maputo, Bogota and Baghdad. He is a founding partner of the Mayfair-based advisory firm Herminius. Nick also serves as a local town Councillor in Sevenoaks and as a gliding instructor.