Mandarins in Whitehall have handled Brexit with great professionalismby Claire Foster-Gilbert / September 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
Shock froze the atmosphere in Whitehall on Friday 24th June, 2016. The stately Portland stone buildings of the Treasury and the Foreign Office, and the more modern office blocks nearby, held within their corridors a silent, necessarily private grief.
The smallest percentage of civil servants will have voted to leave the European Union the day before. But by the following Monday morning, sleeves had been rolled up and the task of managing the departure had begun. As politicians scuttled in and out of Number 10, as journalists scrambled to keep up with news that was far too exciting for comfort or sleep, as one half of Britain looked at the other half and wondered who on earth they were, the civil servants worked diligently on.
Theirs is the enormous task of disentangling 43 years’ worth of relationship. David Normington, former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and First Civil Service Commissioner said: “the process of implementation will take years to complete, during which time the public and politicians will be bored with the painstaking detail and want to move on…it is the greatest challenge [the Civil Service] has faced outside wartime.”
Most civil servants know no other world than that governed in part by EU legislation; but the oldest will have been responsible for laying the foundations of the relationship at the outset of their careers in the 1970s. An unasked for divorce, and for some of them, no doubt, a heartbreaking one. But civil servants do not rule the world, they run it.
Unlike the senior administration in the United States, for example, who are all political appointees, civil servants at every grade and seniority in the UK are appointed on merit only, and never by politicians. They are bound by the Civil Service values, enshrined in law, of integrity, objectivity, honesty and impartiality. It is for them to enact the will of politicians. And it is thus that they support democracy, not by having political opinions themselves (except privately), but by supporting those who have the democratic mandate.
Our democratic representatives have, rightly, to seek selection by their party, then election by the people, and re-election at regular intervals thereafter. That means they have to attend to power, always. No matter how high-minded a person entering politics might be, and many of our politicians, thank heavens, are, every step has to be considered in the light of its effect on their constituents, political colleagues, allies and enemies. A good politician will attend to her moral health alongside her attention to power, so that what is corrosive does not become corrupting.
Civil servants help keep a minister honest. The staff in her department have the emotionally and intellectually demanding task of telling truth to power, of providing impartial, objective advice based on the evidence. They have to tell their ministers when hard or soft Brexit policies will leave the country in a worse state than before.
They have been accused, and not always in private, of being the bearers of gloomy analyses because their attitude is not sufficiently positive—they don’t believe enough in Brexit. This criticism entirely undermines the basis upon which civil servants work. And to criticise them in public, as politicians and journalists sometimes do, is tantamount to bullying, because civil servants cannot publicly defend themselves.
The stability and integrity a politically impartial Civil Service provides our democracy cannot be overstated. It is a bit like the hardworking ecosystems of the natural world that, unseen and sometimes unknown to humanity, provide the clean water, breathable air and fertile soil on which we so depend. And (to push the analogy) just as our failure to understand and support natural ecosystems is leading to their wholesale destruction, so our failure to understand and support the ecosystems of government can mean they will be lost to us before we know it.
The Power of Civil Servants: a dialogue between David Normington and Peter Hennessy, edited by Claire Foster-Gilbert, is out now. Haus Publishing, £7.99