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Is the Civil Service Impartial?

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Written by Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine a former diplomat argues 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, he says, 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. His view is that the establishment’s extraordinary reaction to the referendum result means that voters will no longer take our democratic system and government institutions for granted.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to introduce a debate at the Battle of Ideas on the issue of trust in and loyalty to our institutions. As the convenor, the journalist Ella Whelan pointed out, while distrust in politicians, the media, and other major institutions has been low across the Western world for some time, this distrust seems to have acquired a renewed political significance in recent years. For many populists, major institutions like central banks or civil servants are all part of ‘the establishment’ intent on frustrating political change. Many centrists, conversely, blame institutions – such as news agencies – for pandering to populists. In both cases, distrust has taken on a more combative dimension. She went on to pose the following questions: What, therefore, are the implications of a breakdown in public trust? Is it confined to certain sectors or institutions, or is distrust a more generalised feature of life today? What motivates growing distrust and what can be done to restore trust in institutions? Or should we welcome a new scepticism?

The Battle of Ideas team rather cheekily invited me to get the debate rolling with a few remarks about the possible significance – in terms of trust in our civil service – of the of the leak of Sir Kim Darroch’s telegrams from Washington.

On the leak itself, I made it clear that I have a completely orthodox view. It should never have happened. There should be an internal investigation and if the culprit is identified they should be dealt with according to the law.

But the context is interesting. The attitudes of senior British civil servants on the great political issues of the day are increasingly the subject of comment. Including from me in previous blogs on the Briefings for Brexit website.

People are asking whether our civil service is still impartial. To what extent is a coincidence of political outlook with the government of the day now a necessary precondition for appointment to the most senior civil service grades? Even if our system continues to exclude explicit political appointees to senior civil service roles, is there an underlying assumption that appointments depend in some way on conforming to certain areas of received establishment wisdom such as – to quote one completely random example – the UK relationship with the EU. In other words: are you one of us?

When I was a civil servant, I deliberately avoided any form of political activity. I never (well, hardly ever) discussed politics at work – or sought the political views of colleagues. As far as I – and most of my immediate work mates were concerned – it just wasn’t done. We were proud to be different from the US – where many senior officials were political appointees. On the face of it, that seems pretty reassuring. It is a picture that the FT has recently sought to reinforce.

The paper ran a story on 19 July entitled: ‘Whitehall fears backlash from a Johnson government’. The FT quoted unnamed diplomats on how unimpressed the FCO were by Boris Johnson during his stint as Foreign Secretary. Judging by what my FCO and ex-FCO friends have told me, this is the prevailing view – and not necessarily an impartial one…

The FT thundered on: ‘For nearly 170 years, Britain’s civil servants have operated on the principles set out in 1854 by two Victorian statesmen — Stafford Northcote and CE Trevelyan. Under their system, the officials working across Whitehall are non-partisan, politically neutral and speak truth to power behind closed doors. In the US and some other nations, civil servants come and go with each new administration under a so-called “spoils system”. By contrast, the Northcote-Trevelyan principles created a professional civil service that is admired throughout the world.’ I support those principles. But I do now wonder whether it looks a bit complacent to assume that our civil service – post negotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement – really is the object of global admiration.

In recent years we have sought to address – via referendums – the issues of Scottish independence and proportional representation. Devolution and the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement have been constant preoccupations. But I think it is probably fair to say that beyond a certain amount of navel gazing, we have not really paused to reflect on the fitness for purpose of the core institutions of power at the centre. Then Brexit happened – and the game changed utterly.

The thing about Brexit – and Corbyn for that matter – is that it is not just the goal posts that have moved, but the pitch has gone AWOL as well. Our governing class – one might call them the progressive liberal consensus that encompasses a large chunk of MPs from the mainstream parties, senior civil servants, sections of the media, big business and their associated lobbyists – have suddenly found that their authority is under attack and their natural right to dictate the agenda called into question. And they don’t like it.

One might almost say that these are – or are becoming – revolutionary times. The establishment, oligarchy, liberal progressive elite, bourgeoisie – call it what you like – are deeply unsettled, angry and resentful. The ground is moving under their feet. What the hell is going on?

I’m afraid the FT is not really calling it as it is by painting the civil service as uniformly unpartisan and impartial – nobly speaking ‘truth to power’. As I pointed out in my last blog on this site, the British and American officials who tried to speak truth to power in the run up to the Gulf War got side-lined or sacked. In Dr David Kelly’s case, with tragic consequences. Those who toed the line were promoted – and never really called to account, even though it is now generally accepted that we went to war on a false prospectus.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems pretty clear that the civil service has become increasingly politicised over the past 30 years. Gordon Brown’s Treasury is an obvious case in point. One former Treasury official, who resigned, complained to me a couple of years ago that – under Brown – unless you conformed to the prevailing political mindset there was no future for you in the department. I have no way of knowing how accurate that statement was – and maybe it was just sour grapes from someone who failed to make the grade.

Nor can I say with confidence that the prevailing attitude towards Brexit at a senior level in the civil service is ‘impartial’. As I have pointed out previously, the vast majority of serving and retired civil servants I have spoken to (and I admit that this is not a scientific sample) have told me that the referendum was a misconceived exercise – and that the result was wrong. I have also been told to my face that people should not have been allowed to vote on something they could not possibly understand, that Brexiteers are ‘stupid’, bigoted, right wing populists and so on. One serving official (a closet leaver) told me a year or so ago that anyone outing themselves as a Leave voter in his particular department was liable to be – his word – ‘persecuted’. If that is truly the impartial mood in the civil service, then I fear more leaks are likely under Johnson however much I might disapprove of them personally.

The fact of the matter is that events such as the Gulf War and the Global Financial Crisis have – quite understandably – dented the public’s faith in the wisdom and integrity of our governing class. It need hardly be said that this is not welcome to a group who have a strong sense of entitlement – and are accustomed to having things their own way. They appear to see themselves very much as the ‘arbiters of right thinking’.

Brexit has generated a massive head of political steam because it isn’t just about whether or not we leave the EU, but about the nature of our democracy and how we wish to govern ourselves in the future. As far as I am concerned, this is a welcome opportunity for a period of critical self-review.

I was brought up to believe that our democratic tradition was ‘bottom up’ – while the continental approach was top down. In other words, do you – as Winston Churchill always said – ‘trust the people’ or is it better to leave the key decisions to a technocratic, highly-educated elite who know what’s best, but are not necessarily directly accountable to the voter. Some historians argue that our bottom up tradition has kept our governing class more in tune with the mood of ordinary people than on the continent – which explains in part why we have experienced fewer violent revolutions. Is that populism or healthy democracy?

So – Brexit has been the most important domestic political issue of our lifetimes. Beyond the immediate question as to whether or not we actually leave and on what terms – the reaction to Brexit has pushed all sorts of other issues into stark relief. The referendum asked us a particular question on how we wanted to be governed. My guess is that the establishment’s extraordinary reaction to the referendum result means that voters will no longer take our democratic system and government institutions for granted. The questions about whether or not we have got it right are going to continue. Should the unelected House of Lords be reformed? Are the operations and funding of lobby and government relations groups sufficiently transparent? And so on.

Where does this leave us on the thorny issue of leaks? I guess that what I am saying is that while upper echelons of the civil service may not be political appointees, there are circumstances in which they can become consciously or unconsciously politicised in their approach to implementing government policy. This is bad for our civil service culture – and, I am very sorry to say, makes leaking more rather than less likely. And, while heavy duty leaking may be great fun for the press, it is bad for government for a million obvious reasons. So, I am with Dominic Cummings, who announced on 29 July to any would-be leaker of Cabinet Office papers, ‘One strike and you’re out’.

If officials want to engage in politics they should leave the civil service and get stuck in. Or perhaps we should go down the US route and accept political appointees. This may be a backward step but might at least be a bit more honest than the arrangement that seems to prevail today. That means we need to add the issue of civil service culture to the already lengthening to do list of establishment institutions overdue for review!

Nick Busvine OBE is mayor of Sevenoaks. An ex-diplomat he is a partner at Herminius a Corporate Advisory firm.

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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.