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The Secret Civil Servant: Even Sir Humphrey was never called a useless lying bastard in public

The Brexit minister Steve Baker accused us of being inaccurate – and thoroughly bloody devious as well.

It’s been a busy few weeks down Mandarin Avenue. As a pleasant diversion from deciding which biscuits to have at elevenses, holding a few séances to establish government policy and turning nouns into new verbs, the Civil Service appear to have been indulging in its own spot of information hijinks, with some economic analysis turning up somewhere it shouldn’t. Naughty civil servants. Brexit minister Steve Baker responded by accusing us of being inaccurate, and then as a clarification, thoroughly bloody devious as well. I don’t know which one is more insulting. At times like these, it’s a standard Westminster cliché to refer to such events as being “A Bit Yes Minister”. Except even Jim Hacker never stood up in Parliament and called Sir Humphrey a useless lying bastard.

The relationship between civil servants and ministers is often a tricky one. In the past fortnight, this seems to have soured to near contempt. In my experience, it’s generally more strained with a Conservative administration. Which makes sense when you consider that every middle class, Oxbridge-educated, senior civil servant is actually a communist. I really must stop taking that hammer and sickle to work.

Leaks like this always touch the nerves of government ministers, regardless of what they say. Leaking documents to the press is their manor. If the miscreant was a remain-leaning civil servant, it may well have unintended consequences, calling into question civil service impartiality and giving any critic licence to condemn the validity of analysis, rather than engaging with the substance of it. This will likely dilute the organisation’s ability to deliver tough news to those in power. Which is bad news for everyone.

If it was leaked by a political Brexiteer for that very purpose, then it was a tactical master stroke. The next time I’m briefing a politician, and I’m describing anything more pessimistic than a future Britain resplendent in wealth, an immortal David Attenborough and unlimited cheddar for all, it will be tempting to ask: but do you believe me?

It’s quite something to be called untrustworthy by politicians. I doubt many of us will lose any sleep over it. I take great amusement in the fact that studies always highlight how much more the public trusts civil servants than politicians. If you think that we’re generally faceless, nameless bureaucrats for whom the public have little understanding, no sense of what the job is, what our titles mean or who we are, and still the public trust us more than elected officials, that’s something joyous to behold. The latest Institute for Government survey has trust for politicians at just above 21 per cent. Roughly one in five. I’d like to think that if you asked the Great British Public “Do you trust liars?” you’d probably get about one in five. But then maybe we doctored those figures as well.

All this unpleasantness draws into focus the delicate eco-system which officials and politicians, who often work so closely together, inhabit. It also highlights the huge policy space being left unoccupied by indecision at the top. Inevitably, someone is going to plug in the Policy Generator and attempt to fill that gap, because the fuse has been lit on the Brexit cannon and it’s high time we all climbed in.   

In all fairness to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Baker did apologise afterwards. And he did say the allegation about Her Majesty’s Treasury fiddling the figures should have been investigated. It’s just something of a shame he didn’t investigate it with his own brain before he started talking nonsense about it.  

But then this is a minister who has told officials that in Brexit the Movie (not The Musical - I’ve got the option on that) he wants to be played by Brad Pitt.

The question is: do you believe me?

The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because Steve Baker probably won’t find any of this funny. While based on real events, parts of the above are embellished for comic effect.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.