Servants as masters

Eddie Ford says Dominic Raab was forced to quit after a political struggle between ministry’s policy and minister’s policy

After taking more than 24 hours to make a decision, Rishi Sunak last week forced Dominic Raab to resign as deputy prime minister and secretary of state for justice. Following eight formal complaints against him, the inquiry led by Adam Tolley KC found that Raab could be “unreasonably difficult to deal with”, as he was sometimes “abrasive”, which on some occasions “feels intimidating or insulting to the individual but is not intended to be so”. Absolutely not, even if some civil servants were allegedly “scared” to enter his office.

Tolley concluded that Raab “did not intend by the conduct described to upset or humiliate”, nor did he “target anyone for a specific type of treatment”. He also said that Raab’s loud table-banging and finger-pointing was not meant to be threatening and there was no “persuasive evidence” that he swore and shouted at individuals. However, Tolley believed that Raab - when foreign secretary - was “unreasonably and persistently aggressive” towards Hugh Elliott, the British ambassador to Madrid (who was, heaven offend, advocating allowing Spain to station police on Gibraltar).

Naturally, this has generated endless debate and discussion in the media about Raab’s personality as well as the nature of bullying. Boring! We do not give a hoot about whether or not Raab swore or shouted. Top civil servants can easily cope with such behaviour and doubtless can reply in kind (probably without swearing or shouting). No, what is a lot more interesting is what this whole affair tells you about the British state and the civil service.

Firstly, what needs to be understood straightaway is that the British civil service is very different from the American one. A good example is Clement Attlee’s appearing at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, which was about carving up the world between the victorious Allied powers. The Americans were surprised when Attlee, a new prime minister, turned up with exactly the same set of civil servants that had served Winston Churchill. This, of course, is in complete contrast to the US system - where you get a big clear-out at the top every time there is a new president: not only do the American equivalent of ministers go, but so do most of their advisors.

When Raab complained about civil servants blocking what he wanted to do, this is not exactly an unknown phenomenon. Yes, it is hard to gauge how real his complaints are - but there is a profound split in government over the European Convention on Human Rights, which has James Cleverly, and possibly a good portion of top civil servants, wanting the UK to stay on board, while Suella Braverman and Dominic Raab talk of defying or leaving (thus lining up the UK with Russia and Belarus).

It need hardly be said that leaving the ECHR would be highly problematic for British standing internationally. On the other hand, if you do not pull out of the convention, then how do you deal with the ‘small boats’ and other related issues? The Blair government too had similar misgivings about the convention: how can you fight the ‘war on terror’ if you do not have the right to torture terrorists, arbitrarily detain prisoners, and so on?

So it is quite conceivable that Rabb faced a wall of obstruction at the ministry of justice. Not an unknown phenomenon. For instance, all you have to do is read the diaries of Tony Benn, who held a string of ministerial positions for Labour during the 1960s and 1970s. He tells how - especially as he ‘immatured’ with age by getting more radical - the “awful” civil servants did everything they could to block crazy ideas like workers’ cooperatives, and so on. The blocking devices they used are extraordinarily well known nowadays, especially if you are a fan of the 1980-88 Yes minister/prime minister BBC TV sitcom written by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn - once required viewing throughout parliament. They all thought it was a great laugh because it was so true - ie, top civil servants burdening their ministers with countless red boxes, exhausting ministerial visits and endless media interviews.

Apparently, Dominic Raab did not finish work until 10.30 at night - maybe because of the sheer amount of stuff the civil servants were feeding him to keep him busy. Crucially, by definition, politicians - when they become ministers - are very much here today and gone tomorrow, as Yes minister illustrated perfectly. It is the opposite with civil servants: they are not hired by the minister or prime minister - they are employed by the state, and therefore are not easily disposed of. You can fall out with your top civil servant, who might even resign. It is more likely though that they will survive way past you - going on to serve under a whole number of different ministers and prime ministers (especially recently).

The professional civil service system dates back to the 19th century. Roughly speaking, it came into existence with the Northcote-Trevelyan report published in February 1854 - though, for one reason or another, it only began to be implemented from 1870 onwards. Influenced by the Chinese ‘imperial examination’ system, the report recommended the creation of a mandarin-type civil service, entry to which should be solely on the basis of “merit”, enforced through the use of exams. Before that, there was appointment on the basis of pure nepotism - that is, the placement of aristocrats in positions of key responsibility. Recognising that public administration was suffering “both in internal efficiency and in public estimation”, the report wanted a service that had the “core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity” - able to “transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next”.

The Northcote-Trevelyan report was essentially a response to Chartism and fear of the ruling classes losing power through the ballot box (doubtless backed by physical force). It was part of a whole swathe of measures introduced in this mid-19th century period to counter the threat of the expanding suffrage. Increasing statisation saw a reduction in the scope of trials by jury; the creation of one-member seats in parliament, whereby MPs had too much caseload for legislation to be properly scrutinised; an end to the sale and purchase of officers’ commissions; the introduction of a professionalised police service - the home secretary having powers to give directions to local police forces, etc, etc.

At this point, regarding Dominic Raab’s invective, it is important to emphasise that we are not talking about the mass of civil servants. For example, the Public and Commercial Services Union, though not exclusively composed of civil servants, has around 200,000 members. Raab has not been accused of bullying lowly clerks or office staff. Rather, we are talking about the elite of the civil service. For example, there is the First Division Association, which was founded in 1919 as a ‘trade union’: and today has about 18,000 members representing Whitehall policy advisors, government-employed lawyers, crown prosecutors, diplomats, senior national museum staff, senior civil servants, accountants, NHS managers, etc.

Hence, the very top civil servants handling government must number no more than just a few hundred. Together, they are loyal to each other and exercise more effective power than the House of Lords or the monarchy. In this respect they are the equivalent of the military’s top brass. Therefore, we are not dealing with a relationship between master and servant, even if we do have the term ‘civil servants’ - they are not subordinates to be ordered around like domestics. No, they are servants of the state - an administrative caste, which is fundamentally a component part of the ruling class.

It is true that, post-1945, people from the working class can find their way into the top echelons of the civil service. But, as they rise, they thoroughly internalise the interests of capitalism in general and the UK state in particular. That is precisely why we have the cult of neutrality, as civil servants are meant to serve governments of any political colour - exactly as recommended by Northcote-Trevelyan. As long as Labour is committed to the system, exactly as Clement Attlee was, there is no problem. Of course, they will make suggestions - sometimes resist changes - because they consider what some ministers are doing as stupid, reckless or plain wrong (they will not express this by shouting and swearing, though they can be blunt). In that sense, top civil servants are a collective who have a collective line - steady as she goes, no dangerous experiments. Clearly, most of them see Brexit as a disaster, because it has created such uncertainty. Unsurprisingly quite a few resigned immediately after Brexit, not wanting to take responsibility for what they saw as a disaster.

Possibly then, what we have with Raab is a successful coup by what Michael Gove once called the ‘Blob’. The civil service elite has struck a blow over the ECHR using complaints about behaviour that is - certainly was - perfectly normal between powerful individuals. Behind the accusations of bullying, intimidation and aggression there is politics at work - in this case ministry’s policy versus minister’s policy.

The civil service unsuccessfully tried to get Priti Patel in 2020 - now they have got Dominic Raab. Which dangerous government minister will be next?