Dominic Raab says he has behaved "professionally at all times". It's not the best defence

Professionalism is not the first word that springs to mind regarding our politicians—and the deputy PM is certainly no exception

February 16, 2023
Photo: Uwe Deffner / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Uwe Deffner / Alamy Stock Photo

“I’m confident I behaved professionally at all times.”

This was how Dominic Raab defended himself last week, when he finally responded to the speculation surrounding him and the inquiry into his behaviour being led by Adam Tolley KC. It is a denial that sources close to Raab have been offering for several weeks.

He cannot possibly have bullied colleagues, his denial implies, because professional conduct does not allow for such a thing. He may have been tough, and he may have been demanding. This may not always have been comfortable for those around him. But he is a professional and, therefore, not a bully.

Raab seems to regard professionalism as being synonymous with hard work, relentlessness and a total commitment to the job. Last month he told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that “I’ve got to bring everything I’ve got.”

But is that really what professionalism means? I ask Laura Empson, professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms and author of Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas, for her view.

“There’s a big difference between the way that academics use the term and the more general usage,” she tells me. For Empson, there are two consistent elements to professionalism. First, the label implies an extended period of training to achieve an advanced qualification or to acquire specialised expertise. “From this comes the ability to exclude others from a profession and charge premium rates for your services,” she explains. “It gives you status.” The second element is ethical standards, which are supposed to become embedded in any professional during that period of training. 

“Behind both of these elements comes the underpinning of trust, so that clients can entrust professionals with their most complex problems in the expectation they will deliver a service to the highest possible standards,” Empson says.

And, she added, there is nothing in this about pushing yourself and your staff to the limit (which could be what Raab has been implying). She did, however, acknowledge that professional service workers can often work very long hours in order to satisfy clients or bosses. 

“Professional” is a much more slippery and malleable concept than the deputy prime minister perhaps realises. As well as its implying training and high standards, it has numerous other meanings. It can be used as a pejorative, as in football’s “professional foul”, or to imply a joyless way of striving, in contrast to the spontaneity and pleasure-seeking of the true amateur. There may even be latent class snobbery in the distinction between professionals, who do something for money, and amateurs, who are just trying to have a good time. (Try not to slip into amateurishness, however…)

Quentin Tarantino played with the concept of professionalism in his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. His murderous (if smartly suited) gangsters pride themselves on their professionalism—by which they mean killing people and taking their money.

When their plans go awry, a character called Mr White (played by Harvey Keitel) attacks his fellow gang members: “What you’re supposed to do is act like a fucking professional,” he says. “A psychopath is not a professional. You can’t work with a psychopath, ’cause ya don’t know what those sick assholes are gonna do next.”

So are politicians professionals? Empson is not convinced. “They do not have extended training in a specialised area of expertise—quite the contrary—they are expected to be generalists,” she says. “And there are no barriers to entry because anyone can stand for election. Though of course there are very high barriers to entry to becoming an MP.”

“Secondly, they are not socialised into a commonly understood set of ethical standards,” she adds. “In fact, there is enormous variation in how they behave and what they consider appropriate. While there are dedicated and ethical MPs, sitting alongside them are those who have committed gross ethical breaches. This has led to attempts to create and enforce ethical standards, but politicians are still self-regulating, so in that sense they are a bit like a profession.

“When you call someone ‘professional’ you are saying that you trust them to do an excellent job and to behave with the utmost integrity,” Empson adds. “When we think of our politicians, both good and bad, ‘professional’ is perhaps not the first word that springs to mind.”

So what of Raab, the persistent allegations of bullying, and his apparently unhappy team of civil servants at the Ministry of Justice (and former colleagues elsewhere)? For now, we must wait for Tolley’s assessment. But if Raab’s colleagues are too frightened or intimidated to bring him bad news, if they are unable to work normally on account, perhaps, of a fear they may have of him being overly demanding, then clearly they are being denied the opportunity to do their job properly. They are not being allowed to be professional. And in those circumstances, it may be said he is being, well, anti-professional.

As the sociologist Richard Sennett told me several years ago: “A most important motivator for professionals is being able to do a good job for its own sake, rather than just to meet a target. If you take that ability away from professionals they get very unhappy.”

When Raab protests he has behaved “professionally” I am not sure what he is really talking about. I have my doubts about whether he has behaved professionally at all times.