Saturday, April 13, 2024
HomeCulture WarTake the axe to this rotten civil service

Take the axe to this rotten civil service


And insolence no doubt is what they are
      Employed for, since it is their daily labour,
    In the dear offices of Peace or War;
      And should you doubt, pray ask of your next neighbour,
    When for a passport, or some other bar
     To freedom, he applied (a grief and a bore),
     If he found not this spawn of tax-born riches,
    Like lap-dogs, the least civil sons of b—-s.

THAT is the bad Lord Byron on the civil servants of his day, ‘the dirty springs of office’ as he called them, in Don Juan, written in the early 1820s about 50 years before they really got going under Gladstone.

In the century and more that followed, the service has moved from impartial efficiency to a byword for bureaucratic sclerosis and a growing reputation for politicking. A large part of the blame for Britain’s intractable problems lies with the civil service and the wider public sector.

His Majesty’s Civil Service was in the news last week with the resignation of Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Justice and Lord Chancellor, after an investigation found he had acted in ‘an intimidating fashion’ to his underlings.

Raab quit because he said he would if the report found against him, but Westminster sources suggested that he left under sufferance, forced out by activist civil servants and spurious claims. Raab himself said that he was a victim of the ‘tyranny of hurt feelings’, and that the consequences of the report set ‘a dangerous precedent for the conduct of good government’.

Among Raab’s supposedly enormous crimes, he apparently rather emphatically threw a salad in a bin. He reprimanded officials for their ‘woeful’ and ‘utterly useless’ work. Give that man a medal! Staff were ‘left in tears’ after encounters with Raab. I’m sorry, but anyone who cries in the workplace should not be part of a high-level government operation.

But were they real tears or the crocodile variety forced out by activists? The seemingly confected storm around Raab looks rather like the one that engulfed the former Home Secretary Priti Patel for a time. You will notice that both ministers were attempting to push through policies highly uncongenial to the metropolitan middle-class left and their supporting unions, the FDA and PCS, whose attitudes dominate the civil service. Rather like football teams who keep losing until a manager disliked by players is replaced, activist civil service officials appear to size up a minister and anyone not politically soaking wet is likely to be targeted for defenestration by foul means. It is another form of cancel culture.

Be in no doubt, the public administration of the country is mired in left-wing dogma – one glance at the organisation’s website shows that. Are they more concerned with excellence and efficiency or with modern Britain’s state religion – equality and diversity? You decide.

The civil service’s politicisation has worsened since the Brexit vote of June 2016 sent an atom bomb of shock and dismay through Britain’s professions and its public administration. I’ve lost count of the amount of news items since which show the civil service is a fortress of Remain groupthink out to stop any meaningful Brexit. 

The arrogance of all this is breathtaking: you vote, you pay, and we the unelected and on fat salaries and pensions will steer policy in the opposite direction from its democratic mandate.  The costs of the civil service are gigantic and the problems it perpetuates are just as big.

In addition to its politicised pushback against government policy it disagrees with, its productivity is low, a complaint raised by the current Home Secretary Suella Braverman. This, like the rest of the public sector, must surely owe something to out-of-office working, or ‘shirking from home’ as it has become known. Last month, well over three years after the start of the Covid circus, almost half of civil servants were still at home. The Home Office, facing unprecedented crises which Braverman called a national emergency,, has some of the worst figures for in-office working. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg, supposedly the great brain of the Tories, could not get them back into the office. And that was a year ago.

How did we get here? In the end you have to point the finger at the Conservative Party and its failure to deliver on aims stated by the Thatcher government of 40 years ago to ‘roll back the state’. The civil service of those days was of course not filled with Woke millennials and Generation Z-ers but it was huge – apart from the war-torn Forties it reached its peak size in the late Seventies with about 775,000 staff.  Today its ‘core’ staff stands at about 500,000, but that is to reckon without vast outsourcing of services, such as that handled by Serco: government sub-contracting which is not true privatisation.

Like the BBC, the civil service is an organisation that lives off the public purse and stands against conservatism yet the party which bears that name (however spuriously) has never been able to get to grips with cutting it down to size: despite being implacably opposed to Brexit it has done well out of it. In the six years following the referendum it grew by 25 per cent or 95,000 roles. That is quite something, isn’t it? We need more staff to work at stopping Brexit. The declinist Tory Party occasionally essays some big talk on cutting it, as Boris Johnson did, but then the backsliding starts. Johnson’s May 2022 plan to cut the service by 91,000 jobs was reversed by Sunak six months later. 

This kind of act is making the same errors and expecting different results. No doubt Sunak would say that he needs to work with what he has got, but sooner or later, and possibly as soon as next year if it loses the general election, the Tory Party will have to confront its tactical errors over many years, and a big one has been not playing the long game with the civil service with a view to getting rid of it.

But outsourcing will be just as bad, I hear you cry. Well, yes, probably – not much works properly in this country whether in the public or private sector, and things have become acute since the Covid overreaction turned life upside down. But by reducing the amount of publicly funded left-wing groupthink, the need for such extensive outsourcing should diminish. In addition, by breaking up the civil service you will slice through the obvious back channels with union agitation as bargaining unit agreements have to be re-established – or not as the case may be. Moreover, any large-scale rationalising of the civil service will undermine its own image of itself as a politically assertive corporate body, thus reducing the importance of meddling permanent secretaries and their offices.

Say what you like about the radical left, and I do, but you must give them tactical credit: they think in terms of decades and sedulously assume power – their control over culture, society and our appalling public services is testament to this. Unless the right think in a similarly big way, this country’s journey to further chaos and dysfunction will continue unabated.

People often ask me why the country is in ruins, why it cannot control its borders, why civilised life is fraying and very little works as it should. When I start by saying Britain’s public administration has been hollowed out by the arrogant, left-wing blobs who control everything from health to immigration to the school curriculum, their eyes glaze over. But unless the public gets to grips with that fact, they will be forever baffled and angry. The only way to stop the rot is to wield the axe.

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Robert James
Robert James
Robert James is a national newspaper journalist.

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