Original Mandarin

Two opinion pieces in the paywalled DT and The Times provide a fascinating picture of how pundits regard the Civil Service. Earlier today I quoted from a report on how Mandarins are leaving (here) which implied that this was all the fault of Brexit. Here I compare those two paywalled opinion pieces, one of which was published in RemainCentral, the other in the still somewhat Brexity DT.

Philip Johnston asks in the DT: “Can the Civil Service survive Brexit?” (paywalled link) while Alice Thomson in The Times steps right in with the headline “Civil servants are sick of being the fall guys” (link, paywalled). So – ought we to feel deep sympathy with them? Here’s Alice Thomson’s description of the current status:

“Key government departments are being crippled by departures or churn. According to the Institute for Government, in the past year some departments, including the Treasury, have lost two in every five of their officials either to other departments or to roles outside the civil service. This harms the government’s ability to make policy, as knowledge and expertise is lost, and disrupts the delivery of key projects. The Cabinet Office has the highest turnover rate, with more than a quarter of civil servants leaving between March 2017 and 2018. Across all departments, senior mandarins have been in post less than two years, on average. These are hard times for public servants. Those who have been involved with Operation Yellowhammer, which has been making contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit, have been in a Whitehall version of purgatory. One called it “a sort of temporary £1.5 billion sweatshop for civil servants” and explained that staff feel they are waiting in “a zombie fugue state, neither dead nor fully alive, to be told what happens next”. (link, paywalled)

Alice Thomson then brings more details:

“Now the service is attacked daily and many are leaving, having had enough. The younger generation don’t see the advantages; there is no potential public glory unless you count the small possibility of a gong at the end of your service. They are still working on everything from preventing the spread of ebola to sorting out universal credit. But they are also gaming endless scenarios, depending on who ends up in No 10 and how Britain leaves the European Union. As one says: “We’ve become glorified rubbish collectors, clearing up the mess created by politicians.” (link, paywalled)

Am I the only one who detects a sniff of Sir Humphrey-like intellectual snobbery here, garnished with a dose of self-pity? More:

“The majority, 64 per cent, are paid less than £30,000, with only 1 per cent earning more than £80,000 a year, and unlike MPs they can’t take on outside jobs. […] The slow erosion of trust in our civil servants, which began when David Cameron started calling them “enemies of enterprise”, has worsened over Brexit because they are seen collectively as too Europhile. […] In fact, the civil servants seem to be the only ones still trying to ensure a smooth Brexit. They are endlessly being told to find “announceables”, catchy new policies to detract from cock-ups or to promote their ministerial bosses in these febrile times. No wonder they’re disillusioned.” (link, paywalled)

And then we get to the true reason why Mandarins feel superior:

“The calibre of permanent secretaries is generally higher than that of ministers, while successive cabinet secretaries have been more impressive than anyone in the cabinet. Lords Butler, O’Donnell and Heywood all served under several prime ministers without prejudice and implemented their shifting programmes. Senior civil servants will occasionally speak their minds once they have left, and their advice is valuable, but no one has to take it.” (link, paywalled)

There it is: not just we peasants are thickos, so are the ministers we have elected! Ah, that rarefied atmosphere in Whitehall, the playground of Sir Humphreys! We have however also noticed that the ‘valuable opinions’ by former Remain Mandarins are getting top headlines in the Remain MSM while those of Leave Mandarins are relegated to ‘Letters’. Ms Thomson concludes:

“If Britain leaves the EU, civil servants will need to become even more efficient and effective. But if we keep traducing them and trashing their services, few will bother to apply for the roles any more.” (link, paywalled)

Oh dear … perhaps if these civil servants were to remember that ultimately they serve us, the people, and not just their ministers, and if the MSM would remind them of that, might their attitudes change? That shouldn’t be too difficult for those masterful minds.

Philip Johnston first looks at the problem from a historical-philosophical point:

“It is not the job of the civil servant to be neutral but to carry out the wishes of the government of the day. What the Civil Service is supposed to be is impartial, which is not the same as neutral. If officials were neutral, they would never be able to switch seamlessly from doing the bidding of one political party to another. It is also meant to be independent and permanent, free of party political interference (though that has not been true for years, if it ever was).” (paywalled link)

Johnston sets up his main argument next:

“As with much else, Brexit has focused fresh attention on the attitudes of the Civil Service, with ardent Leavers accusing senior mandarins of deliberately thwarting the UK’s departure. Is it time to look again at how the Civil Service functions? Should it be more, not less, politicised? […] The notion that the country is run by an establishment cadre resistant to radical change and determined to frustrate the wishes of any party that challenges prevailing orthodoxies has become embedded in our culture.” (paywalled link)

Next, Philip Johnston hammers his point home: it’s not the Mandarins, it’s the Politicians who are at fault:

“Blaming political failure on the uselessness of the machine is an easy way out for incompetent ministers pursuing half-baked policies. But is there an ingrained obduracy towards anything that challenges the received wisdom of Whitehall? The Civil Service has been getting it in the neck for the foot-dragging on Brexit; yet this is really a political problem not an administrative one. Nonetheless, Brexit has reawakened a sense that this country’s institutions are no longer able to deliver what is best for people. […] But while the Civil Service could work more efficiently (and may well still harbour an institutional view that it really does know best), the bigger problem of modern governance lies with politicians promoting too much unnecessary and sometimes harmful legislation in order to garner headlines.” (paywalled link)

Both articles blame the politicians who do not follow their Mandarins’ advice or who are too stupid to give them proper tasks while demanding they fabricate headlines for the MSM. There is however an important article in today’s ‘BrexitCentral’ which throws a significantly different light on the whole debate:

“Remain Apologists pretend that Brexit has yet to be delivered because the task is inherently impossible. This is flippant defeatism worthy of pre-Thatcher Britain. One should rather focus on the deliverymen. Within Theresa May’s Downing Street, very few card-carrying Eurosceptics were listened to, let alone brought on board. Brexiteers trying to contribute were frozen out with a “We’re not doing it that way”. Policy work suggesting an approach based on a Free Trade Agreement and intergovernmental principles, rather than deep institutional affiliation and significant regulatory alignment, was considered out of bounds from the outset. The mission was treated as one of managing and minimalising change, rather than picking a strategic objective. The end result was the Withdrawal Agreement, a deal so profoundly flawed that the churn in Cabinet Ministers obliged to sell it reached rates reminiscent of Italy in the Seventies.” (link)

And that, dear readers, is the real reason why we are where we are, and why Mandarins are leaving or giving up: their ‘we know better’ advice was actually listened to by Ms May, with the outcome of a country rejecting their ‘Brexit Product’, with a Parliament split into Leave and Remain, and with a political landscape changing so fast that not even the intellectual giants of Whitehall can keep up. 

The paywalled articles are nothing but a whitewash, written from two perspectives with the same aim: blame the politicians, not Whitehall. This is how Mandarins would like to be regarded by us plebs. A pity then that these mighty minds were incapable to predict this rejection.

It’s not as if we plebs haven’t talked about it, publicly, for the last few years, but as these articles show: we are too lowly to be noticed by the lofty Whitehall Mandarins. We can pay their salaries and golden pensions but mustn’t disturb them in their difficult tasks of running the country and the government – and to clean up the mess made by politicians.




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