Margaret Thatcher’s favourite television programme was Yes Minister, the 1980s sitcom that satirised the relationship between ministers and civil servants.
The premise, that politicians’ schemes are thwarted by officials, must have resonated with Thatcher who, nevertheless, seemed to get her own way most of the time when she was in power.
Perhaps her success enabled her to laugh at scenarios that pitted a hapless minister and his hare-brained ideas against a cunning career civil servant who was always a step ahead.
Today, it is unlikely that senior Tories would be so amused by a Sir Humphrey, the fictional permanent secretary, constantly getting the better of his secretary of state.
The party, or its right wing at least, has declared war on Whitehall, denigrating its denizens as the ‘blob’ and blaming red tape for all the government’s failings.
In the most recent dust-up, the finger has been pointed at civil servants for the lack of progress in repealing EU laws.
Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch has shelved plans to axe all European Union laws by the end of the year because, she said, when she took up her post, she discovered Whitehall departments had not been focusing on “meaningful reform”.
Instead, the government has decided to reform or scrap only some of the laws by the deadline it set itself, prompting fury from the usual suspects on the backbenches.
Predictably, the ire of the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, responsible for the Retained EU Law (REUL) bill under Boris Johnson, was directed at civil servants.
‘This is an admission of administrative failure, an inability of Whitehall to do the necessary work and an incapability of ministers to push this through their own departments,’ he said. ‘It’s a victory for the ‘blob’ over the specific promise from the prime minister.’
Rees-Mogg has led the campaign against mandarins. When he was, briefly, the minister for government efficiency, he threatened to reduce the workforce by 91,000 and became obsessed with where civil servants worked rather than what they delivered, stalking government buildings and leaving ‘sorry you were out’ notes on desks.
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In the wake of Dominic Raab’s resignation, after bullying claims against him were upheld, Rees-Mogg mocked staff who had complained as a ‘veritable blizzard of snowflakes’. Raab himself spoke of civil servants being ‘activists’ with a ‘passive aggressive’ agenda against him.
The incident saw relations between ministers and civil servants, which have been deteriorating since Brexit, reach rock bottom.
There is now a default position to shift accountability down the line, as the home secretary, Suella Braverman, did when she targeted an ‘activist blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party’ for government inaction on small boat crossings.
No wonder morale is at an all-time-low and civil servants have had enough, according to David Penman, general secretary of the FDA union.
‘Having been told you’re a lazy, woke, inefficient, Remainer, activist, snowflake, you are also now a Machiavellian genius, able to unseat ministers and undermine the settled will of the government,’ he told the union’s annual conference this week.
In March, he warned that ‘bruising’ attacks on the competence, work ethic and neutrality of civil servants have put at risk ministers’ access to impartial advice. Added frustrations over pay have contributed to a high turnover.
No bureaucracy the size of the UK civil service – 483,450 full-time equivalent employees as of December 2022 – is without its faults. The emphasis on generalists at the expense of specialists has resulted in a lack of expertise in crucial areas, such as foreign languages.
Dominic Cummings was right to identify others, including data scientists and software developers, ‘true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university’, who slip through the recruitment net.
But reforming Whitehall to address its shortfalls requires a thoughtful and dispassionate long view not the sledgehammer approach of vindictive, here today gone tomorrow ministers.
Right wingers, who like to accuse officials of slowing Brexit changes, have called for more political appointments in Whitehall. Imagine how that would work.
You only have to watch snippets of the debate in the Commons on Thursday, when Badenoch defended the U-turn on the REUL bill, to appreciate that the smooth running of the country cannot ever be left to a Rees-Mogg, Mark Francois and Michael Fabricant lunatic fringe.
Effective ministers who manage to achieve policy aims do so within the Whitehall framework. Michael Gove implemented radical and often unpopular reforms as education secretary, and has built a reputation for galvanising his departments elsewhere.
The civil service is a bulwark against the less talented or more self-serving (or both) in the Cabinet, against madcap ministers on personal crusades. At the upper levels, it is there not just to carry out orders but to impart wisdom.
Jonathan Lyn, who with Antony Jay scripted Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, said the programmes ‘had unintentionally given politicians an alibi’ because they showed that civil servants really run Britain.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The civil service may not be perfect but good governance depends on it; a notion lost on the current regime to its own cost.
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