Brexit has, in many ways, been a lightning rod for attacks on both the capability and impartiality of the civil service. Individuals have been attacked – most notably Olly Robbins, the Prime Minister’s Europe advisor – but the entire service has been dismissed as pro-remain by some, with every detailed analysis dismissed as another strike from project fear.
Indeed some, like former Brexit minister Steve Baker, have gone further, suggesting that a lack of enthusiasm for the project among civil servants has affected the outcome of negotiations. Only cheerleaders for Brexit could have delivered the unicorns-on-a-stick they imagine were possible, ignoring the fact that DExEU was stuffed full with Brexiteer ministers from the start, most of whom fled as reality bit and they convinced themselves that the national interest was best served by their sniping from the backbenches.
This narrative of an “elite” civil service not delivering for the public is not, however, consigned to those on the political right. Owen Jones’s evidence-bereft musings that a future Labour Government would inevitably be sabotaged by the establishment predicted a modern-day version of A Very British Coup. Jones suggested that “civil servants will tell Labour ministers that their policies are unworkable and must be watered down or discarded. Rather than blocking proposals, they will simply try to postpone them, and then hope they are forgotten about”. That’s more Francis Maude whinge than Chris Mullin thriller to be honest: welcome to government, Owen.
Blaming civil servants for the chaos we now face on Brexit is becoming the norm for the left. Lord Adonis states that he’d refuse to work with any civil servant who continues to work on Brexit, though that’s unlikely to trouble him any time soon. Polly Toynbee lambasts “pusillanimous” permanent secretaries for not demanding “letters of direction” from ministers for any of the no-deal preparation spend. Political point-scoring is the job of columnists, while preparing the country for every eventuality is the job of the civil service: best not get the two confused.
Just last week, in a piece for this journal, Jonathan Powell brigaded the civil service and politicians together as “elites” who are failing the citizens of the UK. With Brexit, he suggested the civil service “appears to have failed to drive home to Theresa May and her colleagues the real position of our European partners, what was possible and what was a unicorn”.
Seeking inspiration from an early 20th century speech by the German sociologist Max Webber, Powell wrote: “When the government pursues a policy civil servants know to be wrong and dangerous to the country, should they just stand by? Or do they have a duty to take steps to protect the survival of the polity?” Perhaps Powell is not going as far as suggesting his own version of that Very British Coup, but the implication is that the civil servants are as culpable as ministers for the current state of affairs.
As those on the left contemplate the consequences of Brexit, they are reluctant to face up to both their own contribution to its causes and their increasing inability to alter its course. Their shattered hope that the civil service would be the adult in the room who would rescue us from the abyss is leading to resentment and blame.
Together with those whose political instincts and lack of experience lead them to be suspicious of the civil service, a grand coalition of left and right is forming. With an unshakeable belief in the certainty of their solutions and purity of their purpose, anyone who challenges, delays or exposes their weaknesses is just another enemy to be defeated in the noble cause.
A permanent, impartial civil service, recruited on merit and unafraid to speak truth unto power, is essential for good and efficient government. But more than that, an independent civil service, that will advise ministers then implement political decisions – and is free from political interference on who it taxes or who it prosecutes – is vital for the health of democracy.
Dave Penman is the General Secretary of the FDA, the union for managers and professionals in public service. He tweets at @FDAGenSec.