Lee Rotherham: Civil service dissidents must rout the Remainers

It used to be said of the civil service that it ran like a Rolls-Royce. The pretence is still occasionally maintained. That’s notwithstanding decades of sales of C Northcote Parkinson, lost secret laptops, and illegal immigrants found vacuuming the Home Office.

As for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, counterpart EU diplo-warriors already in John Major’s day indeed likened it to the Rolls – just without the steering wheel. Though to be fair, that was probably payback for a King Charles Street panjandrum comparing the previous Italian EU Presidency to a double-decker operated by the Marx Brothers.

Whole books could be written about which bits of the civil service aren’t fit for purpose. The Michael Gove experience at Education looked to the outsider like Dien Bien Phu. Heaven knows what tofu tribulations now await Penny Mordaunt at International Development. But what should be of more immediate concern to us is the extent of Whitehall’s buy-in to Brexit.

Psychologically, Brexit will have been a shock to departmental seniors. For decades, the acquired wisdom has been that the UK’s future is strategically associated with the EU institutions, and that the best the UK could achieve was to mitigate and slow the process of integration.

What was lacking, in their eyes, was an alternative. EFTA was thought to be delivering free trade too slowly, so, incredibly, Whitehall planners bought into what would turn into the red tape alternative.

EEC membership, despite all its political sores, was seen as unavoidable to an elite that had lost its nerve. Perhaps ironically, it was this fallacy that proved to be the one key element of the old fatalistic mindset that the Thatcher Revolution missed. Her Government broke the sense of there being an inevitable absolute (as opposed to simply relative) national decline for an economy that was damned by poor nationalised management, rampant inflation, Communist trades union cadres, a lack of coherent planning, and above all by deep pessimism that there was any other prospect.

The 1980s did not, however, remove the pessimism relating to the prospect of the UK successfully stepping out of the Brussels machinery. This was in large part because the world moved on: EU integration has massively accelerated with and since Maastricht, just at the time that globalisation has removed many of the very barriers that drove the UK into the EEC in the first place.

But the problem remains for Brexit planners that mindsets within Whitehall were moulded in those blue and yellow years. Indeed, the delegates who went to Maastricht and Nice and Amsterdam invested their very professional lives into the EU, and now face seeing their life’s output ripped up. So it is inevitable that many are still intellectually glued to it.

They need to get the solvent out to do their job efficiently, and pronto.

I am a little more confident than other Brexiteers about the ability of civil servants to put aside the dominant anti-Brexit bias that percolates through their departments. In part that’s because I’ve seen first-hand on many occasions how professional individuals are when given clear and unambiguous direction. I also recall during the Convention on the Future of Europe witnessing the divides between FCO staff and Treasury officials who were more inclined to challenge assumptions and expectations.

Furthermore, during the Vote Leave campaign, I occupied the gold braid position of Director of Special Projects. As one facet of the role, I engaged with whistleblowers from business and from within the civil service, who contacted us to complain about how Downing Street was abusing its position to leverage support and to get clearly biased documents out in spite of civil service rules.

My focus was not to generate headlines with leaked documents, but to pre-emptively encourage the civil service internally to quash these moves. It seems, by and large, that it did. Though also significantly, in some instances, naughtiness did happen. The most obvious element of this, Project Fear, still damns the Treasury’s credibility today – but there were other more covert instances.



My concern with bias within the civil service today is not that I suspect there is a driven agenda to doom Brexit, though some go-slows seem to be happening at some desks. We have seen incidents in sectoral meetings where officials have been briefing business reps to expect EU funding and programmes to continue. Here, Admiral Byng’s example needs to be followed (metaphorically) pour encourager les autres, though one doubts mandarins will be up for it.

In any event, the big risk is that officials might not seize the opportunities that now arise because they lack the guiding ambition.

John Hoskyns’s admirable memoirs prove an extremely useful read. In Just in Time he recalls the many obstacles facing the core intellectual support team behind the Thatcher Revolution, confronted with an occasional No-Can-Do mentality amongst senior ministers and civil servants. In the case of the latter, following years of refusal by politicians to address the root causes of decline, they had opted to mask it, sugaring the bitter pill by massaging figures and declining to apportion blame. Sorting out those problems in the end would require teamwork and determination by both ministers and civil servants, combining resolute leadership and effective groundwork.

The 1980s Revolution happened because the reforming ministers had a key team of thinkers around them, a logistics chain of ideas fed in by think tanks distinct from the civil service. But our problem today is that it is not only Whitehall that bought into the EU.

One shudders to think how many of the consultancies supplying advice to Government have been (and perhaps indeed are) on the EU payroll, manned by former veterans of the Brussels circuit; how many of those offering legal advice have been on Commission courses; how many professors became EU specialists precisely because they are pro-EU – academia’s dirty secret that a simple little letter from Chris Heaton-Harris rudely revealed.

With such Pathan guides, it is legitimate to ask whether the right paths are now being followed. Because revolutions need revolutionaries, and institutions abhor them. To quote Hoskyns, ‘The Civil Service cannot afford outsiders whom they cannot be sure of controlling. “Dissidents” are as uncomfortable to the Civil Service as Solidarity is to the Polish government.’

Brexit is a dissident philosophy. If we are to see it delivered and the full benefits won, ministers need to find their brightest departmental dissidents and get them promoted – and fast.

Lee Rotherham

  • Colkitto03

    ‘an elite that had lost its nerve’.
    Such true words Lee. The seventies look to all of us today, as the economic madhouse of a decade. We were badly ruled by an elite that had no confidence in themselves or their country.

    Today, thirty years later our, civil service is populated by what David Goodhart calls ‘anywheres’
    Oxbridge educated, ‘citizens of the world’. These people also have no faith in the UK or its people.

    With the technology available today there is no reason why vast parts of the Civil Service could not be re-situated around the country. The North, the Midlands etc.
    The only thing that will cure their defeatism would be throw them out into the country they work for, and force them to meet the people, for whom are are supposed to serve.

    • noix

      Apropos that, the Estonian state managed to put a lot of its bureaucracy on line, with the investment in fibre optics, and operates with a much smaller per capita civil service as a result. Oh for the days when five thousand administered a quarter of the world.

      • The_Pr1soner

        Haven’t they just taken off-line a major part of that system, because it got hacked? We should be careful not to put too much faith in computers. They are, after all, just tools. And pretty dumb ones, at that!

        • Owen_Morgan

          They should improve their security. On the scale of things, though, Estonian failings are probably less significant than an American Secretary of State who directs confidential mail through her bathroom and pockets zillions of roubles, for selling uranium to Russia.

    • That phrase struck me, and applies to many beyond the British bureaucracy.

      I like that idea, and would add never let any group be larger than about 25, so that whenever they are out of the office they are outnumbered by the “Somewheres”. Soon , they will learn to listen to citizens, of not, could you relocate your civil service to say, the Yukon Territory? Canada surely should.

  • Owen_Morgan

    Despite the fact that the EU has been the ultimate source of the bulk of legislation in recent decades, the civil service has retained its numbers and the mandarins their self-importance. The FCO subordinated itself wholesale to Brussels, at which point, presumably, sections of it became redundant. Logically, civil servants ought to see Brexit as a liberating experience.

    Janet Daley wrote a perceptive piece, all the way back in 2000, when, following the General Election in the US, Gore refused to concede defeat. Concurrently, there was an EU summit on. The BBC’s American reporting had great fun, mocking the discussion of “hanging chads” and all the rest. As Daley pointed out, the Beebyanka missed a very striking contrast between the American solution, in which the Supreme Court reached a decision, published immediately and in full, and the EU way of doing things. At the end of the discussions, which were very much behind closed doors, representatives of the various national delegations emerged to address their respective media. Each one had a completely different spin on what had just been decided. All this was breathlessly recounted by Mark Mardell, with the air of a grateful initiate into sacred mysteries.

    Any civil servant with self-respect ought to be glad to be free of that nonsense. I suppose some fantasised about getting the top jobs in the Junckerian superstate: a burning ambition to compensate for not having displayed any before. Those jobs are out of reach for good, however Brexit develops. Civil servants should concentrate on the task in hand and forget their pipe-dreams.

    • Colkitto03

      Well said Owen,
      Christopher Booker often pointed out that our civil service could take a handful of pages of a directive from Brussels and turn them in 90 pages of rules and regulations. here in the UK.
      They were obsessed with the UK being the ‘good guys’ regardless of how much British business was hurt. (or in many cases put our of business,)

      • Alan Llandrindod Wells

        Even poor old John Major called it copper-bottoming.
        The Italians simply removed the bottom, but they can no longer devalue, so they are snookered.

  • John Smith

    The big mistake of the Tories was to not produce a Civil Service fit for the 21st Century.
    It would have been complimented by the ‘Bonfire of the QUANGOs’ that never happened
    We are seriously over governed, removing the EU is only part of it.

    We could remove whole departments like the MOD and no one would notice, apart from taxpayers in their pockets.
    The civil service has not really adjusted from the loss of empire and Scotland, Wales and NI devolution.
    The CS is completely out of touch with the opportunities of a post Brexit UK

    • It wasn’t a Tory mistake – the Tories are doing fine. It was a mistake of the people in trusting any political party to be for anything beyond that political party, sadly those days are long gone.

    • Debs

      Totally agree about over governed. You cannot move for some regulation or diktat .But I seriously question if the mass of the people fully understand that another layer such as elected mayors means many more on the public purse and more meddling in their daily lives.

  • therealguyfaux ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    “It used to be said of the civil service that it ran like a Rolls-Royce.”

    Even a Rolls must run out of petrol eventually. And there is always the possibility of a tyre puncture. Precious little good the much-vaunted reliability in the engine and transmission does you in THOSE situations.

    • In our new green states, perhaps it will be a hybrid Rolls, with run flat tires, and no doubt a defective satnav.

  • Nockian

    The EU a globalists wet dream. A time when banks and giant corporations rule the globe and dictate their requirements to Governments. Those seated in the upper circle of the corpocracy are guaranteed a life of power, prestige and money.

    Two things should be noted here as news:

    The first is the purges going on in Saudi Arabia. Allegedly arrested is Bandar Bush, the arms dealer embroiled in the BAE fraud case, the same case that was quashed by the EU supporter incarnate-one Anthony Blair. We might mention a certain Sir Roger Carr here once director of BAE and the BOE who belongs to the group Business for New Europe.

    Business for new Europe has many such members, including the contemptible Roland Rudd but one has recently made the main news as the man telling us we can revoke A50 at any time. This charming fellow is Lord Kerr-ex British ambassador to the USA. He sits on the executive of the Trilateral commission founded by David Rockerfeller and sits on the steering committee of the Bildenburg group. He is also a member of CER group which lobbies on behalf for Philip Morris, Shell, Exxon, CEFIC, Ford, Microsoft, Boeing and Monsanto.

    It’s important to grasp exactly who is running the show and the Whitehall departments. Every connection is to peers who were once, or remain in Whitehall and the EU. All these peers are connected to the biggest banks, corporations and arms suppliers on the planet.

  • Debs

    The negotiations are being portrayed as complicated and difficult. Why? All of the structures for trading into the EU exist already so nothing much should change. Its purely about cash it seems .The civil service has had an easy life these past 40 years.

  • Mike Fowle

    Interesting article. In Yes, Minister (or Prime Minister), it is said that the Civil Service has the brakes of a Rolls Royce and the engine of a lawn mower. I was in the civil service when Sir Jeffrey Sterling IIRC said that civil servants were simply not up to the job. I rather resented that, but more mature reflection showed me he was right.

  • Frank

    Good article.
    Whatever the outcome, the MPs, Peers, and the Foreign Office and Civil Service mandarins who have been trying to subvert the Referendum vote are now known. There will almost certainly be an accounting – no doubt more savage if they manage to kill off Brexit.
    Ken Clarke’s comments about the “tyranny of democracy” implied that the peasantry were making life unpleasant for the establishment – a wonderful sense of self-entitlement for a working class boy! He forgets that all sovereignty resides with the public he so despises (no doubt because of his own humble origins).