The row between British Home Secretary Pritti Patel and her until recently Permanent  Under Secretary of State Sir Phillip Putnam is part of a disturbing trend which is undermining a 150-year-old tried, tested and globally-respected system.

Europe, America and most of the rest of the world endure political patronage in varying degrees. This was also the case in the UK before Gladstone took a leaf from the Chinese and Indian experience and introduced civil service exams in 1870. Patronage, corruption and political ties were swapped for a civil service based on merit. Bribery income was replaced with job security, above-average salary, a gold-plated pension and the prospect of a lucrative private sector contract upon retirement. 

In return the civil servants were expected to offer apolitical and impartial advice to their policy-making ministers. When the policy was decided, the civil servants implemented it.  Secretaries of state came and went. The civil servants stayed on to provide a historic knowledge, keep track of the buried bodies and point out the consequences and pitfalls of a minister’s preferred course of action.

The final ruling, however, rested with the minister. That is why when a mistake was made it was the politician who resigned.  The issue of resignations is one of the core causes for the unravelling of the relationship between civil servants and government. Ministers have, for the most part, stopped taking responsibility for their decisions. Politics has become a career choice. Elected officials have become increasingly focused on retaining their jobs, political infighting and climbing the greasy pole rather than public service. 

The next issue is ideological purity;  the conflict between it and the national interest, and the problem of separating one from the other.  This is best typified by Brexit. It is no secret that a large portion of Britain’s civil servants regard Brexit as a political and economic disaster. They have told ministers accordingly. To do otherwise would be a breach of their responsibility to provide impartial advice based on their knowledge and experience.

The problem is that ministers do not want to hear their advice because it is contrary to their ideological/political position. Hence Michael Gove’s infamous assertion: “The British public are sick of experts.”

The conflict over Brexit between civil servants and the Brexiteers has led to the false belief that there is a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine the “will of the people.” This conviction fails to take into account a 150-year-old tradition of impartiality or the insuperable problem of secretly coordinating the 333,000 individuals that comprise the British civil service. 

The government’s distrust of what Dominic Cummings calls “The Blob” has led to the appointment of centrally-chosen and coordinated Special Political Advisers (SPADS) selected for their right-wing political views rather than their abilities. These have strengthened ideologically-driven ministers such as Ms Patel, increased the tensions between the apolitical civil servants and the politicos, and led—almost inevitably—to “swearing, belittling and making unreasonable and repeated demands.”

Journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor to the Whatandthewhy.com

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