The recent sacking/resignation of Dominic Raab from the Sunak ministry raises again the question of the position of the Civil Service in the constitution of the UK. When I say ‘civil servant’, I mean not only the Cabinet Secretariat at number 10, or the Whitehall ministerial system, but all civil servants, from those employed within a government ministry right down to a lowly clerk of a village Parish Council.
What is the Civil Service?
The UK Civil Service is the permanent bureaucracy or secretariat of Crown employees in the service of the UK government. It is one of the largest employers in the UK, with over 475,000 employees. The Civil Service is responsible for providing support to ministers and government departments, as well as delivering public services.
The civil servant is governed by a set of principles, including political neutrality, impartiality and accountability. Civil servants are not allowed to express their personal opinions on political matters, and they must always act in the best interests of the public. The Civil Service is also accountable to Parliament.
What roles does it play?
The UK Civil Service plays an important role in the UK’s democracy. It provides support to ministers and government departments, and it delivers public services. The Civil Service is also a diverse and modern workforce, and it is committed to equality and diversity. It is often forgotten that there is a stratum of government that works at a regional and local level and another that concerns itself with infrastructure and regulation. These structures are local government and the agencies. There is also a section termed Quangos, or Quasi-autonomous non-government organisations, such as the Forestry Commission and English Heritage, whose accountability can be more difficult to assess. In a sense, the NHS is also part of government, as it too relies wholly on central government revenue for its existence.
Is there a ‘blob of politically motivated’ resistor civil servants, or is this just an excuse for bad government? Is there a bullying epidemic within the centre of government, or just the whining of ‘woke’, ‘snowflake’ staff?
I suspect that the public image of a civil servant is coloured by the sitcom ‘Yes Minister’, in which the devious and circumlocutory Sir Humphrey Appleby constantly outwits his hapless and hopeless Minister, Jim Hacker.
‘Yes Minister’ is now over 30 years old, but it still retains a ring of truth. Civil servants supply continuity. Ministers are like mayflies, and are ephemeral. Few ministers stay in post for long. It is, indeed, frowned upon for a minister to stay in post for more than two years, as they will be accused of ‘going native’ because they might express the departmental view rather than supporting the political policy of the day.
The same applies to local government. Councillors are elected on a four-year cycle, and the pressures of the job and the fickleness of the election system mean that they may not be as influential as they would hope.
Populists and ‘magic bullets’
Politicians at all levels are now being trolled and abused constantly. This sometimes leads them to adopt populist policies that may bring them into conflict with those attempting to manage an organisation in a rational manner. The Partygate scandal and the Mini Budget 2022 debacle have reduced still further the deteriorating public trust in government. Ministers have to surmount this tide of disbelief to get their message across. Some can’t hack it, which I think is a root cause of any friction.
The tendency of the civil service is to play safe and to retain the status quo. Their ministers, however, want the opposite. Many have come from ‘think tanks’ such as the Adam Smith Institute or Policy Exchange, and have written tracts such as ‘Britannia Unchained’, within which there appear to be magic bullets capable of solving seemingly intractable problems. Frustrations build up when civil servants question these shibboleths.
The same happens with local government: Canterbury with its zoned traffic system, Sheffield and its street trees, Plymouth with its city centre slaughter of trees, and of course Kensington + Chelsea BC and its policies on Grenfell Tower.
Now, it may be that Canterbury’s traffic system has been a basket case for years, and that some trees in Sheffield were a nuisance, or that Plymouth’s city centre needs another revamp. However, domineering tin-eared management isn’t going to win friends and influence people; nemesis or worse is the consequence.
Many in local government don’t like conflict and are hoping that the Civility and Respect Project will restore sense and sensibility. I am concerned that the corrosive effect of social media, and the taint of radicalisation even in very prosaic matters, will continue to hold sway. The diminishing power and finances of local government, caused by successive government policies, are leading to a sense of disenchantment between the organs of local government and the public. If society is itself fissiparous, how can local government avoid being drawn in from time to time? Divided Britain?
Is there a ‘blob’?
So, is the case made for the assertion that there really is an underground resistance group of civil servants seeking to gainsay ‘the will of the people’?
Firstly, what is the ‘will of the people’, and is it a constant? I don’t think that can be answered with sufficient clarity.
Secondly, there are plenty of examples where strong government has led to public dissatisfaction. Where was the blob when these issues occurred?
Finally, is it more likely that a determined and zealous minister losing his sense of humanity in trying to achieve a goal, rather than an indeterminate group of civil servants thwarting his actions, led to complaints of bullying and poor treatment?