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The Partiality of the Impartial

Not too long ago, the UK had a reputation attached to the Civil Service. Civil Servants were known for a number of things; probity was one, dedication to carrying out the wishes of those elected to run the country was another.

That last one did take a slight battering with the TV series, 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes, Prime Minister'. Written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, it starred the late Paul Eddington CBE and his brilliant portrayal of a hapless MP who rises remarkably in the first series, to become Prime Minister (PM) in the second. Eddington played the role of Jim Hacker MP to perfection. Something of a non-entity, Hacker goes in to politics because he wasn't much good at anything else, so made an MP who could be relied upon by party chiefs to toe the line and do what he was told. His ascendancy to leading the country was the accidental result of the games being played by the more serious candidates for the job, all of whom rather cancelled each other out. Hacker was seen as a 'safe' PM, one who wouldn't rock anybody's boat too much and was merely there as a front man while others got on with the real job of feathering their own nests.

Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister was a comedy series (and a very good one) that essentially poked fun at the political establishment and those behind it - the Civil Service.

Every government department has what is known as the Permanent Secretary, somebody who is always with that department and whose job, at least on the face of it, is to smooth the wheels of running that department by the minister appointed to it by the PM. In Jim Hacker's case, his department was the (fictional) Department of Administrative Affairs and the permanent secretary was Sir Humphrey Appleby, an award-winning role for the now equally late Sir Nigel Hawthorne, CBE.

Hawthorne's outstanding performance as Sir Humphrey laid bare the idea that the civil service was entirely neutral. Portraying Sir Humphrey as the typical behind-the-scenes wrangler, he seemed determined to frustrate his minister at every turn, giving way occasionally to allow Hacker his moment of glory - although only now and again. As the minister grew into his time in office, Hacker began to learn more about Sir Humphrey and outwitted him with increasing frequency. Caught in between the two was Bernard Woolley, played with dexterity by Derek Fowlds, who was Jim Hacker's Principal Private Secretary. While he was theoretically responsible to Hacker personally, he was also permanently attached to the department so it was Sir Humphrey who wrote his performance reviews and influenced his Civil Service career. Woolley usually handled these situations well, and maintained his reputation in the Civil Service as a 'high flier' as opposed to a 'low flier supported by occasional gusts of wind.'

The comment was used in an episode entitled, 'The Whisky Priest', and is a good example of the play on words used throughout both series, particularly by Sir Humphrey. In the opening episode, Sir Humphrey introduces himself and Woolley to the incoming minister thus:

"Well briefly, sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary."

Sir Humphrey, in a following episode, also said:

"Minister, the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the ministerial incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position."

And one more, from Hacker's time as PM:

"Notwithstanding the fact that your proposal could conceivably encompass certain concomitant benefits of a marginal and peripheral relevance, there is a countervailing consideration of infinitely superior magnitude involving your personal complicity and corroborative malfeasance, with a consequence that the taint and stigma of your former associations and diversions could irredeemably and irretrievably invalidate your position and culminate in public revelations and recriminations of a profoundly embarrassing and ultimately indefensible character."

Needless to say, the unfortunate Jim Hacker was, for the most part, completely bamboozled by Sir Humphrey's eloquence, which of course, was the intention. Even so, Hacker did have his moments. In one episode, in reply to a question about MP's pay, he said:

"Being an MP is a vast subsidised ego trip. It's a job for which you need no qualifications, no compulsory hours of work, no performance standards. A warm room and subsidised meals for a bunch of self-opinionated windbags and busybodies who suddenly find people taking them seriously because they got letters 'MP' after their names."

Which of course, was the point - the real point - of the series. While most people assume that it is elected MPs who form the government (at the behest of the Prime Minister), the real power, the day-to-day authority, the ones who really run the country, are civil servants. Like Sir Humphrey Appleby. MPs come and go, usually every five years, Ministers even more frequently with every cabinet reshuffle and, as we all know, the party that wins an election may not do so the next time round, which also means that they probably will not have had enough time in office to turn their policies into firm action.

That said, it is also fair to say that some ministers have proved quite effective at getting certain things done and, occasionally at least, do achieve something. That is only done however, with the help of an efficient and steadfastly neutral civil service. The problem today is that the civil service is not quite as it once was.

What might be termed the darker side of the civil service was revealed by the TV series and the performance of Sir Humphrey Appleby and ever since, civil servants have been labelled, 'Sir Humphreys' by the media. A perfect example of this was Olly Robbins, appointed by Theresa May to head Brexit negotiations. Robbins was not an elected anything but as a civil servant, had enormous clout. Known to be in favour of the UK not leaving the EU, Robbins is widely credited with the major part of the withdrawal agreement that favoured the EU and was voted down so comprehensively by MPs in the House of Commons.

But where did civil servants get the idea that they could be so nakedly partisan? This has its roots in the government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Both, but Blair especially, changed the way in which the civil service operated, moving it from a neutral organisation to one that was more supportive of Blair's Labour. The result today is that certain elements within the civil service have come to believe that they can do as they please. Despite the left-leaning view that many civil servants now have, equally many find the idea of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party entering government abhorrent and this is why news was released last week, allegedly from the civil service, that Corbyn was physically unfit to be Prime Minister.

Jeremy Corbyn has long held the view that the EU is a bad thing. This is why he has prevaricated over the issue of a second referendum. On the one hand, many of the party's MPs want one. Others, mindful of the fact that they represent leave-voting constituencies, do not. Corbyn also knows fine well that if the UK remains, EU law would prevent his mass re-nationalisation plans. As do the civil servants.

So civil servants do not want Corbyn. Civil servants want things to stay as they are. Hence the very unwise move to sow the story of Corbyn's physical condition, a story subsequently shown not to have much to it with the Labour leader, now age 70, seen riding around London on his bicycle.

This kind of impartiality will also have an impact on a Tory government, regardless of who leads it. The question is, can anything be done about it? Can any action be taken to restore the civil service to its former neutrality? It is notoriously difficult to sack civil servants (as Sir Humphrey pointed out in his usual verbose way). The answer is possibly, although it would take a government of some time to do it; after all, Blair's Labour was in power for thirteen years and it took most of that time for it to place the civil service where it wanted it to be. To put the civil service back to at least where it resembles the service of Sir Humphrey (unco-operative to everybody regardless of party political persuasion) will take at least the same time.

In the meantime civil servants might do well to remember that their salaries are paid by the taxpayer - which also means that, like MPs, they are responsible to voters. How many ordinary people are aware of the influence of the civil servant however? Many will be aware of Olly Robbins, thanks to coverage by the press. But how many know of the rest? How many really, really know how the civil service actually operates?

Perhaps the last words are best left to Jim Hacker's Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley (who also, like Hacker, had his moments):

"The fact that you needed to know was not known at the time that the now known need to know was known, and therefore those that needed to advise and inform the Home Secretary perhaps felt that the information that he needed as to whether to inform the highest authority of the known information was not yet known, and therefore there was no authority for the authority to be informed because the need to know was not, at that time, known or needed."

© Kevan James 2019

Read more of Kevan James views in his column here on KJM Today and in News Commentary.

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