Not much has changed since Disraeli labelled the British state a “ponderous and expensive system… without business habits, or any knowledge whatever of the details required”. Since his pertinent words, spoken in 1852, Whitehall remains as ponderous and expensive, almost immune to reform and ungovernable by mere politicians.
Part of the problem is the “woke” culture that has entered the soul of the Civil Service. This is wrapped up in the buzzwords of “diversity and inclusion”, which ironically seek to exclude and marginalise those who do not subscribe to politically correct views.
Revelations from The Daily Telegraph show the extraordinary scale of this radical ideology in Whitehall, and must spur action from the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and ultimately the Prime Minister. It is completely unacceptable that the Civil Service has been politicised in this way, and represents a major drag on government resources that should be focused on delivering for the public.
When I was in the Cabinet Office our team reviewed training courses available to civil servants partly because we wanted performance-related pay. It seemed sensible that those who did courses that helped them improve the service they delivered and became more productive would be paid more. In some parts of the machine this already happened. Unfortunately, many of the available programmes were under the woolly title of “leadership” or “diversity and inclusion” and sought to teach things that are tendentious at least and political at worst. To protect the core value of the Civil Service, impartiality, the Cabinet Office decided to begin withdrawing these courses.
On one occasion I discovered that the Cabinet Office was offering a session called “Check Yo! Privilege”. This was brought to my attention by a serving civil servant who was then told off by his line manager for informing me. Some senior civil servants do not want ministers informed of the courses going on in their own departments. The wokeness is part of this problem and creates a self-righteous atmosphere where anyone who does not accept concepts such as “white privilege”, “critical race theory” or the desirability of “decolonisation” is seen as a bigot and labelled with one “ism” or another.
I suspect that most officials are quietly appalled by the political nature of training, correspondence and guidance being imposed on them. I was fascinated to be stopped in the street recently by a young Muslim civil servant who was very uncomfortable with the propaganda in his department on “gender” issues. He was nervous about whistle-blowing, even though he thought guidelines were being breached, because of the culture in the department, by repute one of the least effective in Whitehall, which would be more likely to punish him than to behave properly.
His fear is not unreasonable. The Civil Service is increasingly committed to acting independently of ministers, and ultimately the voters they are responsible to. I experienced this attitude when I attempted to return Whitehall’s employment levels back to its 2015/16 numbers. As many as 90,000 extra civil servants had been added between then and 2022 on the excuse of Brexit and Covid. It was time to return to normal. This is why we had to pause the fast stream recruitment of graduates by the Civil Service. The fast stream did not work very well and it needed improving.
At every turn they tried to stymie this policy, twice blocking it on technicalities. Thus, the decision had to go to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. However, I was made aware of a note from a very senior civil servant attempting to persuade him of the error that was about to be made. Fortunately, I had time to prepare an alternative message and the authoritative decision was finally taken to end the fast stream.
Zeus had nodded, except Boris then fell. I have since discovered that while I was still a minister in the Cabinet Office a memorandum was prepared for my successor to reverse the decision, which in the hurly-burly of a new administration inevitably happened. A wasteful, expensive fast stream that loses talent and only provides about a quarter of permanent secretaries continues unchecked and unreformed while clear decision-making is frustrated when the bureaucratic hierarchy does not like it.
This obstruction and wokery cannot continue: it is designed, quite simply, to stop democracy working. In the ECHR, Equalities Act and Climate Change Act, we have given civil servants the tools to stop and delay policy making. The EU was an even bigger restraint as its law always trumped ours, but a Civil Service that was once the grit in the oyster that made a great pearl is now more akin to the worm in the bud.