Whitehall and its civil servants have long been regarded as the guardians of probity and the checks and balances in Britain’s unwritten constitution. But they are coming under unprecedented attack from a prime minister and a coterie of his aides in Downing Street making no secret of their disdain for what I have called the “permanent government”, what in the US is called the “deep state”.
The mandarins of Whitehall are being portrayed by much of the media and the commentariat as victims as Boris Johnson and his amanuensis and chief aide, Dominic Cummings, tear up traditional conventions and appoint an administration of cronies.
But Johnson and Cummings’ determination to shake up the civil service is wholly unsurprising. It has made itself an easy target.
The Whitehall mandarinate has long abandoned its role of keeping the ship of state stable and parliamentary democracy healthy, and succumbs increasingly to complacency.
It has been more and more reluctant to speak truth to power, failing to warn ministers of the consequences of the disastrous and unlawful invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, or of the ill-judged military intervention in Afghanistan, and, more recently, by ignoring the warnings from internal government discussions and exercises of a potential pandemic.
Civil servants have been frightened to blow the whistle. And they have been protected by an arsenal of weapons whose effectiveness has been seriously underestimated.
Language is one example. It has been used to cover up, delay, obfuscate, and, of course, to bolster official secrecy. Ministers quickly learn from their official advisers. We have heard their dissembling and euphemisms in responses to questions from journalists over coronavirus, responses supported by comments from anonymous officials.
There is a refusal to commit — policies are always “kept under review”. We are bombarded with statistics — “an unprecedented amount ” (of x millions of pounds, officials are at least adept at supplying ministers with briefing papers full of figures) is being spent on such-and-such a programme or public service, we are told. Such responses can be meaningless given that the crisis is itself “unprecedented” as ministers themselves keep on insisting.
‘Truth is a very difficult concept’
Whitehall has long played word games with the truth. “Half the picture can be true”, the then cabinet secretary, Sir Robin (now Lord) Butler, told the Scott inquiry into arms sales to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s.
Ian McDonald, the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) official spokesman during the Falklands war, told the inquiry: “Truth is a very difficult concept”. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump would like that.
“What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie”, Sir Robert Armstrong, Butler’s predecessor, was famously asked during the British government’s attempt to ban Spycatcher, the memoir of the former MI5 officer, Peter Wright. “A lie is a straight untruth”, replied Armstrong.
When asked “what’s a misleading impression, a kind of bent untruth?”, Armstrong famously responded: “It is perhaps being economical with the truth”.
Sir Patrick Nairne, a former senior MOD official had the honesty to admit: “The secrecy culture of Whitehall is essentially a product of British parliamentary democracy; economy with the truth is the essence of a professional reply to a parliamentary answer”.
“The fewer elections the better”, a most senior civil servant once told me as he strongly attacked proposals for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. The mandarins of Whitehall pay homage to parliamentary democracy but do their best quietly to subvert it.
Whitehall has for long lived off a reputation of running “a Rolls-Royce civil service”. Yet for years its incompetence has been abundantly clear, not least when it comes to negotiating contracts with the private sector and its shameful ignorance of technology.
Millions of pounds have been wasted, as the National Audit Office has repeatedly demonstrated, on attempts to provide new IT systems for the security and intelligence agencies, for example, or the National Health Service, or new weapons systems for the MOD.
The mandarins are now losing the bullet-proof job protection privileges they have enjoyed for so long. The departure of Jonathan Slater as “permanent secretary” at the Department for Education over the exams fiasco is the latest of a string of mandarins to have left early.
Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, left his post early by mutual agreement with Johnson, but after he became the butt of criticism by political aides in Downing Street, notably over the handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Johnson announced on Tuesday that Sedwill is being replaced by Simon Case, a high-flying civil servant — decried by former Whitehall mandarins for a lack of experience but not for any lack of competence.
Earlier this year, Sir Philip Rutnam, “permanent secretary” at the Home Office, resigned, taking his case to an employment tribunal claiming constructive dismissal over home secretary Priti Patel’s alleged bullying of officials.
Unsurprisingly, former top civil servants and (anonymous) serving ones, and their union, the First Division Association, attack the Johnson government saying civil servants are being blamed for the mistakes and incompetence of ministers.
Ministers may be to blame but these attacks on the prime minister also smack of resistance to his attempts to bring down their over-protected empires.
The trouble is that Johnson is substituting the traditional Whitehall machine with something very different but equally bad. He has shown that while he is in no way embarrassed by incompetence, he is only too happy to approve secret and uncontested contracts to private companies with questionable records, little relevant experience and connections to his political friends.
A company hired to work with Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum has been awarded valuable government contracts. Another firm with past links to the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, has also been given contracts.
Johnson was happy to approve the appointment of Conservative peer Baroness Dido Harding as the new head of the National Institute for Health Protection, the body taking over Public Health England and the target of ministers’ blame game surrounding the mishandling of the pandemic crisis.
Harding, wife of Tory MP John Penrose, was chief executive of TalkTalk at a time the company’s customers were hit by a disastrous cyber attack (for which it was fined £400,000 by the Information Commissioner) and chief of the government’s disastrous Test and Trace programme.
Neither have Johnson or Cummings attempted to disguise their contempt for MPs and judges. There must be “urgent action in the farce that judicial review has become”, said Cummings after the Court of Appeal blocked the deportation of convicted Jamaican nationals detained without access to legal advice and support. Cummings called the ruling “a perfect symbol of the British state’s dysfunction”.
What Orwellian interpretation should we give to last year’s Conservative manifesto commitment to set up a constitutional review to “restore trust in democracy” and to ensure judicial review “is not abused to conduct politics by another means”?
We should be worried. We need only recall how MPs, with scarcely a squeak and without a vote, have allowed the government to pass a Coronavirus Act. This measure, as the human rights group Liberty has warned, contains powers to detain people not suspected of any crime, close borders, postpone elections, ban gatherings including protests and strikes and take away crucial safeguards for the disabled, those who rely on social care, and those with mental health problems.
These are described, in a phrase reminiscent of the most authoritarian governments, as “emergency powers”.
The culture of the Johnson government may be very different from that of Whitehall’s “permanent government”. But the two have one thing in common, lack of accountability and addiction to official secrecy.
So who will provide the constant vigilance so desperately needed to ensure that more and more powers accruing to the executive (not least because of Brexit) are repealed, to call a stop to subtle and largely unnoticed corruption, to attack the threats to our parliamentary democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law?
Judging by recent experience, not MPs at Westminster and not civil servants in Whitehall, those putative guardians in the past of our unwritten constitution.