Observations of an expat: Maybe Minister

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The row between British Home Secretary Pritti Patel and her until recently Permanent  Under Secretary of State Sir Phillip Putnam is part of a disturbing trend which is undermining a 150-year-old tried, tested and globally-respected system.

Europe, America and most of the rest of the world endure political patronage in varying degrees. This was also the case in the UK before Gladstone took a leaf from the Chinese and Indian experience and introduced civil service exams in 1870. Patronage, corruption and political ties were swapped for a civil service based on merit. Bribery income was replaced with job security, above average salary, a gold-plated pension and the prospect of a lucrative private sector contract upon retirement.

In return the civil servants were expected to offer apolitical and impartial advice to their policy-making ministers. When the policy was decided, the civil servants implemented it.  Secretaries of state came and went. The civil servants stayed on to provide a historic knowledge, keep track of the buried bodies and point out the consequences and pitfalls of a minister’s preferred course of action.

The final ruling, however, rested with the minister. That is why when a mistake was made it was the politician who resigned.  The issue of resignations is one of the core causes for the unravelling of the relationship between civil servants and government. Ministers have, for the most part, stopped taking responsibility for their decisions. Politics has become a career choice. Elected officials have become increasingly focused on retaining their jobs, political infighting and climbing the greasy pole rather than public service.

The next issue is ideological purity;  the conflict between it and the national interest, and the problem of separating one from the other.  This is best typified by Brexit. It is no secret that a large portion of Britain’s civil servants regard Brexit as a political and economic disaster. They have told ministers accordingly. To do otherwise would be a breach of their responsibility to provide impartial advice based on their knowledge and experience.

The problem is that ministers do not want to hear their advice because it is contrary to their ideological/political position. Hence Michael Gove’s infamous assertion: “The British public are sick of experts.”

The conflict over Brexit between civil servants and the Brexiteers has led to the false belief that there is a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine the “will of the people.” This conviction fails to take into account a 150-year-old tradition of impartiality or the insuperable problem of secretly coordinating the 333,000 individuals that comprise the British civil service.

The government’s distrust of what Dominic Cummings calls “The Blob” has led to the  appointment of centrally-chosen and coordinated Special Political Advisers (SPADS) selected for their right-wing political views rather than their abilities. These have strengthened ideologically-driven ministers such as Ms Patel, increased the tensions between the apolitical civil servants and the politicos, and led—almost inevitably—to “swearing, belittling and making unreasonable and repeated demands.”

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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15 Comments

  • Dilettante Eye 6th Mar '20 - 8:40pm

    Whether it is classed as bullying or not, for sure Priti Patel has ruffled a few Senior Civil Service feathers. The thing is, those Civil Service feathers needed to be ruffled. Indeed we need more Priti Patels’ to ruffle a lot of establishment feathers.

    Ruffling establishment feathers is frankly way overdue.

    ‘Take back control’ was way bigger than Brexit.

    There is no point in taking back control from the EU, only to leave the dominating establishment structures to continue unchecked riding rough-shod over UK citizens lives.

    Several UK elitist institutions have got it into their heads that they have a some form of ‘traditional right’, to interfere, adjudicate and generally manipulate the political discourse, minus any democratic authority to do so !

    Institutions which need a major overhaul :

    The Civil Service
    The BBC
    The House of Lords
    The Metropolitan Police
    Royalty
    Quangos
    The media inspired Green Agenda

    This list is not exhaustive, and this public war against this ‘Traditional Establishment’ has only just begun. There is a whole metropolis of corrupt elitist ivory towers to keep populists busy for a very long time. UK voters have regained control of democracy and we’re not letting go of it anytime soon.

    We need more far more Priti Patels because there is a lot of feather ruffling to be done.

  • Dilettante Eye 6th Mar ’20 – 8:40pm.

    Excellent post.

  • Dilettante Eye
    In other words you want to abandon all integrity and standards in public life.

  • Tom Arms 6th March 2020 – 12:22 pm:
    …her until recently Permanent Under Secretary of State Sir Phillip Putnam…

    Sir Philip Rutnam.

    Hence Michael Gove’s infamous assertion: “The British public are sick of experts.”

    That was not what Gove asserted. He never said what you’ve put in quotation marks.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGgiGtJk7MA&start=62

    I think the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know best and getting it consistently wrong.

    – Interview with Faisal Islam, Sky News, 3d. June 2016.

  • Manfarang 6th Mar ’20 – 10:48pm.
    In other words you want to abandon all integrity and standards in public life.

    The Lib Dems did that by accepting defecting MPs who had obtained public office by misrepresentation having stood for election on a manifesto commitment to Leave the EU.

  • Jeff
    There has never been a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment to Leave the EU. If members of other parties come to realise the harm and economic damage that leaving the EU entails (the UK is a transition period still following EU regulations) then they are very welcome.

  • in a transition period

  • @Dilettante Eye
    Ruffling establishment feathers is frankly way overdue.
    ‘Take back control’ was way bigger than Brexit.
    There is no point in taking back control from the EU, only to leave the dominating establishment structures to continue unchecked riding rough-shod over UK citizens lives.

    Trouble is that the Brexiteers and their media friends didn’t and still don’t understand just what was involved in “taking back control”. In their emotionally charged rush to leave the EU in double quick time, they totally failed to see that this simply played into the hands of those who didn’t want change at Westminster. The laugh is that prior to the agreement of a December 2019 election, Parliament was in the process of working out new and potentially more democratic ways of working, now we have a government who see themselves as more of a monarchy – highly centralised on No.10 and controlled by unelected people working in the shadows.

    The door for real democratic “taking back control” change has been slammed shut for at least the next 5 years.

  • Dilettante Eye 8th Mar '20 - 6:37pm

    Roland
    “Trouble is that the Brexiteers and their media friends didn’t and still don’t understand just what was involved in “taking back control”.

    Trust me, we understand very well. The main task ahead is steering Boris to a proper Brexit by the end of the year.
    Next year its game on, for a new movement, to tackle the rest of the issues I mentioned earlier.

  • Bless poor old Dilettante has gone full reactionary. The herald of the people leading us all back to a glorious past. The problem he has is that past did not exist and he’s is very likely not going to around long enough to work out it didn’t exist in this new tough world. Tis very sad already we are being told that the “economically inactive” will have to pick-up the slack and that phrase “economically inactive” cover the majority of the Brexi’s and Lexi’s Hard times ahead and those that are of no economic value will be among the first to suffer in our new red in tooth world.

  • Jonathan Coulter 9th Mar '20 - 10:29am

    Tom Arms has put his finger on the gravity of the threat to our “150-year-old tried, tested and globally-respected system”, which superseded a regime based on personal patronage at every level. I have seen the patronage system writ large while living and working in Latin American countries, and can say without reservation that it is a major factor behind their relative underdevelopment. Those civil services have many dedicated and competent staff, but I have often seen people campaigning for political parties with the idea of being rewardd with a civil service job, including jobs in customs and other areas which allow them to earn backhanders.
    In such environments, people become cynical and develop a whole language and dark humour to describe their reality. Ministers expect to directly employ subordinates who are “hombres de confianza” (men of trust), but who in practice may need to be “incondicionales” (yes-men) or “arrastrados” (sychophants/brown-nosers), and refrain from blowing the whistle when the boss engages in his “movidas” (corrupt deals) or takes a “raja” (a bribe). And then there are the “paracaidistas” (parachutists) who get paid regardless of whether they turn up to work, or are put on an Embassy payroll while studying on scholarships overseas.
    Such things existed in pre-Gladstone Britain and were suitably lampooned by Dickens in his description of the “Circumlocution Office”. Unfortunately, I sense that Dominic Cummings and “Dilettante Eye” are pushing us back towards a time where politicians had undue power over a civil servant’s career. BEWARE OF MOVES TO POLITICISE PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT.

  • Denis Mollison 9th Mar '20 - 12:58pm

    @Dilettante Eye
    “There is no point in taking back control from the EU, only to leave the dominating establishment structures to continue unchecked riding rough-shod over UK citizens lives.”
    The civil service is far from perfect, but for the next 5 years at least the “dominating establishment structures [continuing] unchecked riding rough-shod over UK citizens lives” that I worry about are this government and the “1%” (to use shorthand) who finance it and who will benefit most from taking a wrecking ball to our public services and the environment we all depend on.
    [Though since you include the “media inspired green agenda” among your conspiracy theories I don’t expect I’ll make much progress getting you to look in the mirror.]

  • Dilettante Eye 9th Mar '20 - 2:01pm

    Jonathon Coulter

    “BEWARE OF MOVES TO POLITICISE PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT.”

    The very opposite. The moves required are to remove politicisation from institutions of public employment .

    Civil Servants are perfectly entitled to give a new minister the advantage of their experience but they are in the end, servants. The minister after hearing advice is the one to make the final judgement on how to proceed. Not least because,

    1. They were democratically elected.
    2. The Prime minister has given them the job, and the brief derived by a government and its cabinet and their manifesto.
    3. If it goes wrong, the ministers head will roll, not the civil servant.
    4. If it goes very wrong the minister can lose their seat at any subsequent election, whilst the civil servant will still be looking to a substantial pension.

    We all laughed at the ‘Yes Minister’ series, but it gave a valid look into the government within a government problem.

    Any large institution will over time develop an ‘attitude’ either politically, or socially, which it is not entitled to hold in its professional dealings.
    If we accept that an institution can develop ‘institutional racism’, it can also be ‘institutionally politicised’. That developed politicisation can be socialist, conservative, liberal or some other, but it cannot be allowed to misuse that politicisation in a subversive or obverse way to an elected representative.
    It was abundantly clear that Ollie Robbins along with a hard core of the Civil Service were anti Brexit, and with the aid of a very weak Theresa May, did everything they could to stop the democratic mandate of leaving the EU. But voters didn’t vote for Ollie Robbins any more that they voted for Ursula von der Leyen. If you are a civil servant, your job is to implement the policy of the democratically elected government unfettered by your personal belief system.
    So to recap, the government responsibility ‘food chain’ is:

    Civil Servant does what the appointed Minister says they should do.
    Appointed Minister does what the Prime Minister says they should do.
    Prime Minister does what they told the voters they would do.
    Voters every 5 years tell the Prime Minister to carry on for another five years or clear their desk.

  • @Dilettante Eye
    Re: We all laughed at the ‘Yes Minister’ series, but it gave a valid look into the government within a government problem.
    It also gave a valid look into the reality of having unskilled in inexperienced MPs as Ministers; there are times when the civil service have to tell the ‘minister’ that what they say is utter rubbish. I can understand such jumped up individuals getting upset about such a pushback and want to remove those who don’t blindly say yes minster…

    By the way, I see you are still in denial about T.May, much of the delay was down to Parliament and specifically the Brexiteers in the Conservative party – it’s all there in the Parliamentary voting records…

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