Civil Service Reform 24

This note summarises developments in 2022.

Gisela Stuart - Appointment as First Civil Service Commissioner

A majority on the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee approved Gisela Stuart's appointment to the constitutionally vital role of First Civil Service Commissioner, with the minority expressing concern about her impartiality.  This was because she was known, as one commentator put it, to be an "ally and ideological fellow traveller of Prime Minister Johnson". 

No.10 Downing Street Permanent Secretary

The creation of this new post only helped to confuse responsibilities within the centre of government.  There were now four people responsible for delivering the PM's priorities:  The Cabinet Secretary, the No.10 Perm Sec, the PM's Chief of Staff, and the PM's Principal Private Secretary.

A New Statutory Role for the Civil Service?

The Institute for Government (IfG) published the above-named (without the ?) and interesting paper in March 2022.  You can read it here.  Its premise and argument were nicely summarised in its first few paragraphs:

The civil service is central to government in the UK. Civil servants advise ministers, implement the government’s policies and run many of its services. The civil service has evolved continually since its establishment, in semi-recognisable form, in the 1850s, but without a single clear statement of its role, definition, purpose, remit, leadership, governance or accountability.

This lack of a clear identity, or defined responsibilities, is one of the obstacles to the UK government becoming more effective. Nobody, including the prime minister or the head of the civil service, has the necessary authority and available time required to lead and manage the civil service. Instead, often conflicting responsibilities are distributed between ministers, senior civil servants at the centre of government and departmental permanent secretaries. Policy co-ordination and implementation suffer because of inconsistencies between departments. The Cabinet Office and Treasury cannot accurately track the delivery of key priorities. The long-term capability and resources of the state are not well managed and the constitution is poorly interpreted. Risk management is poor with personal responsibilities for owning risks too diffuse. And ill-defined accountability within the civil service, and between ministers and officials, leads to unnecessary mistakes followed by blame games, preventing important lessons from being learned.

This paper proposes a new statutory role for the civil service to address these problems. It would act as a statement of the civil service’s permanence, its values, its objectives and how – at the highest level – it should be run and held to account. It would define the civil service’s position in government and its operation and set out a governance structure that improves accountability while at the same time reinforcing and strengthening its legitimacy.

A new role set out in statute would not address every problem in UK government and our proposals are not comprehensive or the final word on the subject. But by setting out for the first time the operational sphere of responsibility of the civil service and how it should work, the partnership between ministers and civil servants – upon which government depends – can be strengthened and the long-term standing of the civil service improved.

Better Policy Making

The IfG also published the above-named report in March 2022.  It noted that:  'Of course, effective policies require  - above all - ministers with good judgment and a clear idea of what they want to achieve.  And policy making is not a process with a single ‘right’ answer – it is messy and often the skill is in the consensus-building and compromise needed to get things done.'  Having said this, the report then made a number of sensible recommendations to address 'five main problems':

Picking up the IfG's own concern that good policy making needs good ministerial clients, the author of the Beisian Reasoning blog made this sensible comment:

However, the main thing missing for me is that all this analysis is about the supply of policy advice and none of it is about the demand for policy advice. The big problem from the ground as I see it is that a smart person can in one or two years amass more expertise in a policy area than the system typically demands. From then on, becoming more of an expert is only more demoralising as there’s no benefit accruing to you but you realise more and more why things are wrong. I say ‘the system demands’ very deliberately - any individual minister or senior civil servant would always want you to have more expertise at any moment in time. The IfG aren't unaware of this ... Yet they still mainly describe it as an issue of supply.


So what is the source of the absence of demand for high-quality policy advice? For me, this is due to the state of public discourse. Frankly, most public discourse is incredibly shoddy. The best ideas do not get amplified and commentators flit from crisis to crisis rather than addressing long-term issues. I’m not just blaming the media here, although they play their role. The entire system of public discourse seems to work against reasoned, expert debate and open, inclusive customer or citizen consultation. The job of government is solving collective action problems, but we’ve somehow eroded our ability to collectively act. 

Fixing Whitehall's Broken Policy Machine

The above-named paper by ex-Permanent Secretary Jonathan Slater might turn out to be amongst the most influential of the papers published in early 2022.  In it, he argued that Whitehall was too remote from the public and from its own front-line (few would argue with that!) and asserted that the problem could be addressed in large part by civil service leaders themselves if they became more accountable.  I was not alone in applauding the strength of many of Mr Slater's arguments whilst doubting that the necessary cultural changes could be achieved without significant support from ministers and Parliament, both of which were unlikely to be offered in advance of a major review and adjustment of the relationship between the three parties.

Leadership College for Government

The Government announced its intention in February 2022 'to reform leadership and management training for civil and public servants, establishing a new Leadership College for Government'.  (emphasis added)

Paul Dacre and Sarah Healey

The right wing printed press were never great fans of the civil service but February 2022's Private Eye reported a particularly vile and unwarranted attack - see image on the right.

The Johnson Government

And working for the Boris Johnson government remained ... challenging, to say the least.  He himself appeared to be presiding rather than governing whilst concern grew that he and his colleagues were allowing, and maybe encouraging, state capture by narrow interest groups. See, for instance, this speech by Liz David-Barrett.

Jill Rutter summarised the problem in this way:

 The British foreign secretary takes a private jet to Australia for a work trip, rather than a scheduled airline. The Home Office Twitter account denounces “activist” lawyers. The Cabinet Office opens up a VIP lane to fast track bids for PPE contracts. The Northern Ireland secretary announces legislation to allow the UK to break international law in “specific and limited” ways. The leader of the House of Commons travels to Balmoral to ask the Queen for an extended prorogation of parliament.

These incidents may seem disparate. But the unifying theme is that, hearing of them, an earlier generation of civil servants would probably have sucked their teeth and uttered the damning word “inadvisable”.

Our system of government rests on a collection of messy conventions and officials, the guardians of these norms, would have warned the minister that although perhaps a case could be made — and they perfectly understood the political pressure — on balance these were, at best, unwise actions and the minister should desist.

The politician would bristle, perhaps moan slightly to their private secretary or special adviser about bureaucratic rules and then, usually, acquiesce.

No longer. Boris Johnson’s government has shown itself undeterred by the threat of being called out for rule-breaking, extravagance, inappropriate use of government contracts or communications, even for embarrassing the Queen. Such transgressions seem to be regarded as badges of honour rather than a sign of bad judgment. The dull propriety that constrained previous governments has been thrown off with as much glee as have the shackles of the European Court of Justice.

And then there was 'Partygate' - more and more evidence that the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary, the Director General for propriety and ethics, and large numbers of other No.10 Cabinet Office staff had taken part in leaving and other parties during the Covid pandemic  - whilst the rest of the country has been told (and legally obliged) not to socialise with those outside their immediate families.  Many of them (though not Cabinet Secretary Simon Case) received and paid fixed penalties from the police.  Sue Gray's report is here. 

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this affair was that no senior official resigned or, as far as could be seen, faced significant disciplinary proceedings. Senior press officers remained in post, despite the fact that they had clearly breached the Civil Service Code by knowingly lying about the existence of the parties.  Max Blain, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, issued a half-apology towards the end of May, saying: "The prime minister has said, and I have said on a number of occasions, there were failings both in terms of what happened and in terms of how it was handled.  The prime minister has apologised for that and obviously I am happy to apologise for that as well".

It got worse.  Here is Jill Rutter's report of Cabinet Secretary Simon Case' appearance before a House of Commons committee (emphasis added):

Press officers are paid to put a positive spin on government policy and to defend the government when its record comes under attack. So the press office will have a set of defensive lines to take.  And it will have ways of presenting the government’s achievements which make the government look as good as is possible – within boundaries.

The most important of those boundaries is that a taxpayer funded press office must not lie to or deliberately mislead journalists (save perhaps if there is a pressing national security situation). That duty is in the civil service code. It is in the guidance to government communications officers.

In [another] case the No.10 press office might have been a victim of others’ lies in No.10. But that was clearly not true in the case of the partygate allegations. There the press office was at the heart of the party culture in No.10 exposed in Sue Gray’s report. But despite knowing that it was impossible to dress up what had been going on as “work events” – the defence which cost Allegra Stratton her job – they went on covering up. It was only after the fines were issued and the full Gray report was published that the official spokesman stopped lying and put an apology for doing so on the public record.

Amazingly that apology was not followed by the spokesman’s  resignation or dismissal. It should have been. The prime minister’s official spokesman cannot double as a liar. Both the press and the public need to know that they can trust what is being said in the name of the prime minister and the government. And that action should not have rested with the prime minister – it should have been the cabinet secretary who made clear that the lies had besmirched the civil service’s reputation and demanded their departure.

Instead, at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee last week, the cabinet secretary seemed to suggest that this was not the case. He said: “It is not automatically a breach of the Civil Service Code. There is a professional point here. I think that the reason why he apologised, although it is not an easy relationship between the press officers and the media, is that it is important that there is a degree of trust, which is why he apologised.” This was a remarkably contorted justification for clearly inappropriate behaviour.

Honesty is not just the best policy – it is the policy.  And lying clearly breaches it. Case’s equivocation suggests the only problem with lying and the only reason for apologising was that this had compromised the relationships between press officers and the media. It may be that in the Pincher case, the integrity of the No.10 press office and of civil service press officers more broadly is just another piece of collateral damage from the prime minister’s behaviour.  But that integrity was already in question after partygate.

Taxpayers do not pay for civil servants to lie to us via the media. The prime minister may not accept that. But the cabinet secretary should make clear that he does.

But Simon Case remained in post, as did Martin Reynolds, Mr Johnson's Principal Private Secretary (who had followed him to No.10 from the Foreign Office), who was said to be lined up for a significant diplomatic appointment - whereas their predecessors would undoubtedly have resigned in shame.  (Mr Reynolds had emailed a colleague boasting "we seem to have got away with" holding drinks in the Downing Street garden.)  Mr Reynolds was awarded a CB (a very senior honour, just short of Knighthood) in Mr Johnson's resignation honours list.

The FT's Chris Cook noted, too, that the Cabinet Office and No.10 'routinely break the law.  On [Freedom of Information] and [Environmental Impact recording] they regard their statutory duties on disclosure as optional and they lie routinely'.

The Prime Minister also published an updated Ministerial Code.  Even the enduringly polite staff of the Institute for Government commented that "the changes strongly emphasise personal prime ministerial power, remove institutional constraints developed over time & are consistent with a view that no 'network of obligation' binds the PM".  The foreword, in particular, lost text requiring the "very highest standards of propriety, no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money".

Declaration on Government Reform

Two progress reports were published in April 2022, one in Civil Service World by Suzannah Brecknell and one (Anything to Declare) by the IfG.  According to the IfG 'Progress ... has been mixed'.

Civil Service World published a lengthy interview with civil service COO Alex Chisholm in May 2022.  He was enthusiastic about moving staff out of London and 'data confidence' and mentioned recruiting 2,000 'reform champions'.  But he had nothing to say about the bigger picture including concerns about the poor post-Brexit performance of the UK government or concerns about the relationship between ministers and officials.

Indeed, one year on (by June 2022) it seemed that interest in this initiative had markedly waned, at least at ministerial level.  Michael Gove had moved on to 'Levelling Up, Housing etc.' and his successor, Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared to prioritise job cuts over more serious reform.  His announcement of 91,000+ job cuts is summarised here

Working from Home

Mr Rees Mogg at the same time waged a war on those still working from home after the waning of the Covid pandemic, seemingly oblivious to the associated accommodation cost savings and to the attraction of flexible working to (otherwise underpaid) more senior staff - and especially female staff.  He even suggested that civil servants still working at home could be at increased risk of losing their job.

SCS Recruitment

It was also announced, around the same time, that all senior civil service jobs would be advertised externally by default.  It was not clear whether this would make much real difference as many such jobs had previously been so advertised where it made sense to do so.  The appointment, for instance, about four months later, of external candidates to the posts of Chief People Officer and Chief Digital Officer followed previous appointments to similar HR and technology posts. 


Civil Service World reported as follows in July 2022:

Government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg is planning to ban “ridiculous” training courses offered to civil servants, he has said.  The Cabinet Office minister has said all courses that he believes are “subject to mockery”, and particularly diversity and wellness programmes, will be banned and only “intelligent, sensible” courses will be available in the future.  “There will be a new curriculum coming which will stop these absurd courses being available,” Rees-Mogg said, in an interview with The Telegraph.

Rees-Mogg does not have the power to cancel training run by individual departments but told the newspaper he would write to secretaries of state to ask them to review courses currently offered to officials.  He has also ordered the government’s learning and development hub, the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit, to scrap any “fancy” training programmes and replace them with courses useful to civil servants’ jobs.

The civil service training curriculum was only just updated in January 2021, with the launch of the GSCU.  He highlighted a course run by the Cabinet Office, his own department, called “Check Yo’ Privilege” as an example of the “absurd” type of diversity training that he wants to ban.

Francis Maude Again

See Note 22 for information about a 2020 review of the Cabinet Office led by Francis Maude, and a comment on his earlier reform activities.  (I am not aware that his 2020 report was ever published.) 

Lord Maude was then commissioned in July 2022 to lead a 'governance and accountability' review into civil service efficiency and effectiveness.  He was to:

Alex Thomas commented that this was 'big news in civil service land [which] could turn out to be really important.  His terms of reference cover lots of civil service reform's greatest hits'.

Accounting Officer Assessments: The NAO's View

The National Audit Office reported in July 2022.  They could not tell how many AO assessments had been carried out but concluded that Accounting Officers were not consistently publishing and sharing their assessments in line with Treasury guidance.  Many of the summaries that were published were published far too late to permit proper transparency and scrutiny.  And those assessments that had been published did not always make clear that issues had been considered by AOs when making their judgements.

All in all, therefore, it did not appear that the AO assessments regime is achieving the objectives that were envisaged when it was introduced five years earlier.

Keen to Please? - and Dominic Cummings - and - Advice Given to Previous Ministers

I spotted these interesting comments in an August 2022 Substack blog by Sam Freedman:

'Gareth Conyard (a former DfE civil servant) asked on twitter:

“Do you have any reflections on your engagement with civil servants? Where were the positive interactions? And the negative? And what made the difference?”  

What’s remarkable – in retrospect – is how keen to please most of the civil servants we worked with were. There’s something of a myth (that governments find it useful to maintain) that officials are recalcitrant Sir Humphrey’s who spend all their time trying to frustrate the elected government. That wasn’t how it felt at all. They department helped us drive through the Academies Act in record time and moved rapidly on numerous other policies, despite the personal concerns they will have had. The only difficulties were caused by a few people leaking to the press and the opposition, which was really counterproductive as it stopped us from being open about policies within the department.

If anything officials didn’t push back enough – though I appreciate why that didn’t happen. Certainly the presence of Dominic Cummings made it even harder than normal to do so as most officials were understandably scared of him. The most effective civil servants I saw were the ones able to get him to change his mind by standing up to him and finding counter-arguments he saw as compelling. Once he respects you he will listen to advice and a few managed to get that kind of relationship with him.

But it’s not reasonable to expect that officials should be able to deal with such tricky people. Instead there are some more systemic changes that could be made to enable better advice to new Governments. David Russell, another ex-DfE civil servant with whom I worked, commented:

“Re your first point, one of the maddest conventions in the Civil Service is that you don't talk to ministers about advice given to previous Govts. By the time I was a Director (and knew I didn't want to go further up) I decided just to ignore this. I explained as fully as I could to ministers why the policies were as they were and why the previous ministers had taken the decisions and made the policies they had. Otherwise the assumption just runs that the previous lot were either wicked or incompetent. Neither is ever true. The Civil Service says it does this to protect the Govt's 'decision-making space' (i.e. you know your officials won't blab to the other lot in future) but I think it's actually a way of the CS holding power to themselves, as then only officials really know why things are as they are.”

I agree with this. I once managed to get hold of some advice written for the previous Government via an ex Labour minister but it’s daft that I had to go round the houses like that. You would probably need to allow ministers to mark particularly contentious or politically sensitive advice as unavailable to their successors. On a more techie point I’d also significantly strengthen minister’s private offices via the appointment of merit-based expert advisers as set out in this Institute for Government report. Having more policy experts working regularly across different policy issues with Ministers would enable better coordination between the core civil service and Government. It would also create a bigger group of people who could meet with “stakeholders” including the ones who currently get ignored.'

Johnson's Resignation - and Simon Case

Prime Minster Johnson announced on 7 July 2022 that he had been forced to relinquish leadership of the Conservative Part and so would in due course cease to be PM.  Philip Stephens commented that:

His premiership saw a sustained assault on the values, institutions and traditions underpinning British society. The civil service, the judiciary and the BBC have all come under fire in Johnson’s campaign to dismantle the checks and balances embedded in the constitution and replace them with rule-by-the-mob populism.

David Allen Green wrote this:

The removal of Johnson, however, was of great constitutional interest.
It was not for any particular reason of policy, and it was not because he was an obvious electoral liability.
It was for another reason.
That reason, however, is difficult to state exactly, but in my view it was because of a collapse of political authority caused by Johnson’s disregard for the constitutional norms of the office of prime minister.
Many of his fellow ministers could not rely on what the prime minister said and so, rather than carry on as ministers, they resigned.
Johnson appeared to believe he could say what he wanted as prime minister, regardless of whether it was true or not, as long as it suited his perceived interests.
He also believed he would always get away with it.
But a political problem arose where it was plain that he had lied, and could be seen to have lied, about what he actually knew when he promoted a political ally.
He could not get away with it, this time.
The constitutional norm would have been for a prime minister to provide a truthful account of their political decisions - literally, to be accountable.
But Johnson did not - could not - provide a truthful account.
This refusal to be properly accountable led to the collapse of political power.

Mr Johnson said, in his resignation speech, that "I want to thank the peerless British civil service for all the help and support that you have given".  Anthony Seldon, however, writing in The Times, said that:-

He hyperbolically praised the civil service in his resignation speech outside No.10.  But he never trusted them, and oversaw a climate of fear which damaged morale across Whitehall.  The captain of a team needs to inspire those who work for him, something he never did, his boosterish rhetoric appearing hollow and insincere against the backdrop of government briefings in the media against the civil service."

Ex-Civil Service Commissioner David Normington wryly noted that the transition to a new Government was taking place at a time of severe international and economic crisis.  Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had "sometimes seemed like a bystander at a car crash ... now is the time for him to step up".

And the IfG's Alex Thomas urged Mr Case to be more "muscular" and confident in his public defence of the civil service.

Was Prime Minister Johnson brought down by a Mandarin?

The 'straw' that broke Mr Johnson's premiership was his handling of the Chris Pincher affair.  This anecdote, published by Tim Shipman in The Sunday Times, reveals the length to which even ex-civil servants will go to try to avoid embarrassing Ministers that they detest:

When Chris Pincher, the deputy chief whip, got drunk in the Carlton Club in St James’s and was accused of sexually assaulting two men, Downing Street took more than 24 hours to strip him of the Tory whip. No 10 then denied that Johnson knew of any specific allegations against Pincher when he appointed him. Pincher denies the allegations.

That claim was to kill him. At 7.30am on Tuesday, Lord McDonald, who retired from the Foreign Office in 2020 when Johnson combined the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, broke cover and tweeted: “I have written to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards — because No 10 keep changing their story and are still not telling the truth.” He published a letter revealing Johnson was personally briefed on a similar investigation that upheld a similar complaint against Pincher in 2019 while he was a foreign office minister.

On the face of it, this looked like an attempt to wound by an ex-mandarin who was accused of being a vocal remainer. In fact, it was yet another pratfall from No 10. McDonald had privately contacted senior civil servants last Sunday to tell them No 10’s “line to take” was a lie. This was communicated to members of the Downing Street communications team — but nothing changed. “It was another totally unforced error,” a senior civil servant said.

McDonald’s intervention persuaded Sajid Javid, the health secretary, to jump.

So ...

Liz Truss became Prime Minister in September 2022

Writing in the FT, Robert Shrimsley noted that 'the right' was now more likely to attack UK institutions than 'the left':

Ministers and media outriders deride the judiciary as lefty lawyers and "enemies of the people".  The Church of England is dismissed as a hotbed of hand-wringing socialists.  The civil service is a liberal establishment "blob" and the BBC similarly captured. ... in pursuit of radical reform, the right has stirred up public anger, depicting those central institutions as sinister, liberal elitists.

Ms Truss had certainly raised eyebrows during her Prime Ministerial election campaign when she promised "the Jewish Community" that she would "change woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism".  It was totally unclear what she meant by this at the time, and she did not, as far as I know, ever explain subsequently.  But she catalysed an excellent article by Jess Bowie discussing ministers' criticisms of 'wokery' in the civil service.

And then ...

Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister in October 2022  ...

... perhaps offering some hope that the constitutional chaos of the previous six (post-Brexit referendum) years might come to an end.  Chris Grey commented:

It's not a coincidence that the new Prime Minister will be the fourth in the six years since the referendum, the same number as held office in the thirty-one years between 1979 and 2010. Nor is it a coincidence that within those six years there have also been two general elections, massive churn in the holding of ministerial posts, an illegal prorogation of parliament, a unique judgment that the government was in contempt of parliament, numerous highly unusual constitutional events, a government openly threatening to break international law, massive stresses in the relationship between Westminster and the devolved administrations, significant pressures on the Good Friday Belfast Agreement, and perhaps the most significant rifts between ministers and the civil service in modern history. All these things reflect the way that Brexit has all but overwhelmed the capacity and norms of the UK state and political institutions.

Leadership Development in the Civil Service

The above-named report was published by the NAO in October 2022.  It contains a useful summary and review of recent and current attempts to improve the leadership skills of the Senior Civil Service.

PACAC - Propriety of Governance in the Light of Greensill

This PACAC inquiry was initially focussed on the Greensill affair - see above - but was subsequently substantially widened, as explained by the committee:

During the course of the inquiry, several other issues emerged that further challenged the current means by which standards and ethics in public life are upheld. These included:

  • Accusations of bullying by the former Home Secretary, Rt. Hon. Priti Patel MP, that led to the resignation of the former Permanent Secretary to Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam, and the resignation of the then Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, Sir Alex Allan, when the then Prime Minister rejected his findings that bullying had indeed taken place and had constituted a breach of the Ministerial Code.
  • Questions over the funding of the refurbishment of the Prime Ministerial accommodation in Downing Street. This include the failure to supply the then Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, Lord Geidt, who was investigating the matter, with the contents of an exchange of text messages between the then Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Boris Johnson MP, and a Conservative Party donor, Lord Brownlow, that were directly relevant to the investigation.
  • A series of parties that were held in Downing Street in breach of the COVID-19 lockdown regulations at the time. The resulting investigation noted significant failures of organisation and culture in the then Prime Minister’s Office.
  • A second resignation of an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, Lord Geidt, when he was asked to provide cover for a decision to breach international law.

The committee's report is here.

Cutting the Civil Service

The IfG published the above-named, admirably short report in November 2022. Noting the substantial increase in civil service headcount since 2016, and arguing that this was not necessarily a permanent result of Brexit, the paper listed some very sensible advice as to how civil service numbers might be reduced.  This included:

  • Target 'pounds not people'.
  • Have a long term plan for cuts and efficiencies.
  • Be prepared to invest to save.

"The State Britain Is In"

This December 2022 blog by Philip Stephens summarised the current poor state of the United Kingdom. 

Post-Brexit, Rishi Sunak's Conservatives lead a sick nation stranded on the margins of Europe

Labour isn’t working. The campaign slogan emblazoned on Conservative posters when Margaret Thatcher swept into 10 Downing Street in 1979 caught an essential truth. The nation was heading for systemic breakdown. Britain, allies observed, was the “sick man of Europe”. So it is again. The difference is that now it is stranded on the margins of its own continent.

Historical analogies are invariably inexact. Then Labour was in power. Now, the Conservatives are at the helm. The 1980s Thatcher revolution changed the shape of the economy, replacing heavy manufacturing with service industries. The more recent triumph of English nationalism over Europeanism in the Tory party has redrawn political boundaries. For all that, the echoes of the late 1970s are powerful.

By almost every metric, the economy is again  in deep trouble. Alone among the Group of Seven Nations national income has yet to return to pre-Covid levels. Productivity is badly lagging its peers, investment is depressed, incomes are falling and trade volumes are shrinking. Britain is at the top of the European league table for inflation and the bottom for growth. Treasury policy is dictated by nervous financial markets. The nation faces a wave of strikes.
The sorry state of politics speaks for itself. Five prime ministers in a little more than six years; a ruling party riven by factionalism; the habitual sale of honours to wealthy Tory party donors; a blizzard of scandals about ministerial behaviour; a nation that has lost respect on the international stage; and the UK union itself in peril as Scotland agitates for independence.

The condition of the public realm tells the same story. In 1979, the British ambassador to Paris Sir Nicholas Henderson wrote plaintively to London about the stark contrast between the well-being of the UK and that of its continental neighbours. His long lament will be familiar territory for anyone with cause to make the same comparison. 

“You only have to move around western Europe nowadays to realise how poor and unproud the British have become in relation to their neighbours”, Henderson wrote in a valedictory telegram. “It shows in the look of our towns, in our airports, in our hospitals and in local amenities; it is painfully apparent in much of our railway system.”

A contemporary observer in Paris might simply observe plus ça change. Today, ambulances queue up outside hospitals too full to admit any more patients. For the first time in a century the Royal College of Nursing has called out its members on strike. The criminal justice system lacks sufficient judges and lawyers to deliver timely justice. The Home Office does not have enough border officials to make fair assessments of the asylum claims of those crossing the Channel in small boats. 

Citizens face incomprehensibly long waits simply to renew basic documents such as passports and driving licences. The postal system is failing. Un-policed by an under-staffed environment agency, privatised water companies pour raw sewage into the nation’s rivers and across its beaches. As for the railways, on the occasions when trains are running they are blind to anything resembling a timetable. 

In its latest incarnation under Rishi Sunak, the Conservative government would like voters to believe that all this can be pinned on the external shocks delivered by the Covid pandemic and the energy price spike resulting from Russian aggression against Ukraine. Defying all the evidence to the contrary, it refuses to admit the economic damage wrought by Brexit. Leaving the EU was a reckless act of self-harm. Sunak can never admit as much. It’s easier to blame the nation’s present troubles on an upsurge of militancy among public sector trade unions. 
The British malaise runs deep - predating and then amplified by Brexit. Just as the chaos of 1979 marked a decade of decline, so Britain’s present condition mirrors the economy’s performance during the 12 years of Conservative rule. The period since 2010 has been marked by stagnant productivity and weak investment. The hallmarks of Tory economic management have been a determined absence to admit any strategic role in nurturing skills, promoting technological advance and or incentivising investment. Instead the government has hollowed out public services, cut the pay of its workers pay and taken an axe to projects to repair the national fabric. 

The spike in energy prices provided the spark for the present wave of strikes across public services, but the breakdown is structural. It mirrors wilful neglect and underfunding. After the global financial crash, the Conservatives made a political choice to load fiscal austerity on to the public sector rather than to significantly raise taxes. The result is visible everywhere in what Henderson called the poor and unproud condition of Britain’s cities and towns, its schools and hospitals and, yes, its airports and railways. Yet even now the clamour among Tory MPs is for tax cuts.

The nation has been more than a decade in decline. Rebuilding its economic strength and restoring the public realm will take at least as long again. An agreement with the EU to restore a close trade and investment relationship with Britain’s most important economic partner will be a vital ingredient. But the precondition will also be rejection of the ideological delusions about free markets and taxes that have mapped decline. Government has a vital role in supporting productivity and growth. If Britain wants a decent national infrastructure and public services to match those of its European neighbours it will have to pay for them.

Ministerial Bullying

2022 drew to a close with accusations of bullying of civil servants by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab in both his current and two previous roles in government.  This followed previous accusations leveled at Priti Patel which led to the resignation of a Permanent Secretary,  an Ethic Adviser report which accused her of bullying, and Prime Minister Johnson's refusal to then demand her resignation. 

The Raab resignation and its implications for the Public Service Bargain are discussed in a separate web page.

Developments in 2023 are summarised here.

Martin Stanley


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