WHAT are we to make of the role of the Civil Service in government today? This is a question that has forced itself on the public since the moment that David Cameron called the Brexit Referendum.
From that moment the Government campaigned furiously to remain, and the Treasury put forth spurious analyses and negative predictions about the outcome of a Leave win. When the result came through, none of these doom-laden predictions happened, but the Treasury continued as an anti-Brexit agency, issuing thoroughly misleading and faulty economic models. It is still hindering divergence from the EU regulations, as Rishi Sunak’s recent Budget showed, with a new plan to hammer the self-employed, including ‘techie start-ups’, and an expensive taxation system which will cause many to give up altogether. Divergence and innovation, even for bankers, are being damped down.
Project Fear continued throughout, instanced strongly when Sir Mark Sedwill issued his 14-page letter warning against a no deal Brexit when the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson was driving towards a Brexit date of October 31, 2019. This document was a desperate cobbling-together of any conceivable downside to leaving the EU with no deal.
The Civil Service tried to get an extension to the PM Johnson’s firm leaving date when it was clearly vital to keep up the pressure on the EU by not giving them yet another costly extension and endless delay as a trade colony inside the purgatorial Withdrawal Agreement. PM Johnson and his aide Cummings returned from Covid illness just in time to scupper an extension arrangement cooked up by Whitehall. But preparations for a no deal exit never happened, helping the EU realise that the UK was making empty threats. Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence was working secretively pencilling in a plan to put the British military under PESCO command.
Brexit has revealed the politicisation of a once-neutral Civil Service, now imbued with a remainer/rejoiner orientation throughout all its departments of state. The Northcote-Trevelyan code of strict political neutrality for all civil servants, a code over 150 years old, is well and truly dead. The Civil Service, a vast organisation or disorganisation which detests Brexit, will passively resist any clear divergence from EU regulation.
This orientation was deliberately set in motion by the Heath administration, as revealed by the notorious document FCO 30 1048 of 1971 which set out how UK sovereignty would be handed over to Brussels and the UK public would be kept from realising it. Viz item 26:
‘To play an effective part in the Community British members of the Commission and their staffs and British officials as negotiators will necessarily assume more political roles than is traditional in the UK. The Community, if we are to benefit to the full, will develop wider powers and co-ordinate and manage policy over wider areas of public business. To control and supervise this process it will be necessary to strengthen the democratic organisation of the Community with consequent decline of the primacy and prestige of the national Parliaments. The task will not be to arrest this process, since to do so would be to put considerations of formal sovereignty before effective influence and power, but to adapt institutions and policies both in the UK and in Brussels to meet and reduce the real and substantial public anxieties over national identity and alienation from government, fear of change and loss of control over their fate which are aroused by talk of “loss of sovereignty”.’
Even now, it is shocking to read so seditious a plan, spawned by the Conservative Party as if it were controlled by Kim Philby. This symbiosis of UK and EU bureaucrats was planned and nothing ever stopped it happening. In fact Whitehall can hardly be expected to be other than at least half as loyal to Brussels as to Westminster – that is the FCO’s ‘vision’, an indoctrination that saw the primacy of Parliament withering while a Civil Service grew in power behind the scenes to strengthen a higher ‘Community’ democracy.
It was more than a little surprising that the EU dimension to the UK Civil Service did not even get a mention in the 2014 House of Lords Debate on the future of the service. Lord Hennessy, the nation’s expert on the history of the service, himself barely touched on it, reiterating the myth of political neutrality and permanence of the service as against the American model. He defended the Northcote-Trevelyan principles put in place in the 19th century to ensure that Civil Service appointments were awarded strictly on merit and political neutrality. Staff remain in office whatever party is in power, hence the top mandarins being ‘permanent secretaries’ on £200k a year. Hennessy says: ‘It is my belief that our Civil Service does not belong to any single party or any single Government—rather, it is a national asset of central importance to Parliament and all our people.’
David Cameron changed that by enabling government ministers to choose their own civil servants, not having them chosen for them by the system, in an arrangement called Extended Ministerial Offices (EMO). This came in for some criticism. Hennessy said: ‘If greater ministerial choice of Permanent Secretaries has happened and several EMOs are in place – especially if they have morphed into central directorates, essentially departments within departments – might not the new Secretaries of State feel that they are inheriting a senior Civil Service that has, to quite a high degree, been politicised? True, these new Ministers will be able to create their own EMOs afresh, but is there not a risk of a future Government saying no doubt, with regret, we must replace the senior career officials too with bespoke civil servants of our own choice? Should that happen, the Northcote-Trevelyan principles would effectively have been abandoned and our Civil Service will have passed through a one-way valve.’
The use of special advisers such as Dominic Cummings acting as quasi civil servants has only muddied the waters, not necessarily serving, as intended, to rectify or balance Civil Service partiality. His attempts to recruit civil servants in his own unusual image never addressed the critical issue of civil service neutrality, nor did this appear to be of moment to his critics. The last two years have seen Whitehall’s power if anything reinforced as Parliament’s has diminished, a power still working in the direction of helping the EU.
Why did Lord Hennessy say nothing of this in his magisterial address? Brexit is not history, it is Civil Service neutrality that is. The FCO continues to argue openly against the UK’s national sovereignty, the UK’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Jonathan Allen, condemning the very idea.
Sometimes it seems we have two parallel governments, one elected and one permanent, but only the second able to shape and condition the possibilities. Priti Patel’s clash with Sir Philip Rutnam shows how powerful the permanent secretary is, whatever his or her track record. MP Laura Trott (C, Sevenoaks) said in the Commons discussion of this spat: ‘It is not the place of civil servants to choose who their Secretary of State is and any attempt to do so is wrong.’ Senior civil servants are actively and openly undermining Lord Frost’s demands to Brussels, taking the role of masters rather than servants, to the delight of the Remainer saboteurs.
The question we, the public, ask is found in a Commons paper on this topic of the gross ineffectiveness of Whitehall: House of Commons – Truth to power: how Civil Service reform can succeed – Public Administration Committee (parliament.uk)
‘77. This in turn begs [sic] the question: to whom should officials be expected to owe their loyalty?’
Boris Johnson promised to recapture sovereignty for parliament, on behalf of the people, not for ministers and bureaucrats. But coronavirus has since become a carte blanche which has trumped all else, even parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, massively emboldening an already hubristic Civil Service working hand in glove with Statist pro-EU if not communist advisers.