The big news emerging from the Priti Patel bullying debate is this: there is now a double standard on double standards. Many of the Home Secretary’s allies have been pointing out that, when John Bercow was accused of bullying, he was kept in his job by a coalition of Remainers who thought he would help them stop Brexit. At the time, Brexiteers thought Bercow’s behaviour was grounds for sacking, and that Bercow’s backers were reprehensible. Now they say the Bercow-backing is a great precedent for Patel-protecting. Bercow-backing is simultaneously behaviour they abhor and choose to emulate.
The message is simple: My side is allowed to have double standards. My opponents are not.
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This level of political and intellectual contortion may be entertaining to watch, but it has serious implications. Slowly and steadily the party activists and ministers who peddle this line are contorting the very concept of political independence out of existence. Alex Allan, who wrote the report into Priti Patel’s behaviour, was known as the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministerial Standards. His departure suggests there is no place for independence in this Number 10.
We have reached a level of partisanship in our politics that makes it truly hard for many of our political leaders to even conceptualise what it might mean to be independent. It’s the politics of medieval warlords: unless you are on our side, you must be our sworn enemy. And while it is the Right putting this into practice, it is the Left which has created an entire intellectual architecture for this mode of thinking in the shape of critical theory. When deployed in the service of political movements, it means: you’re a trans ally or a transphobe, you’re an Anti Racist or you’re a racist, you believe in Modern Monetary Theory or you’re a neoliberal capitalist sellout.
It is astonishing to me to see formerly serious, sensible Conservatives getting sucked into this vortex, and yet in defence of Priti Patel they have. She only shouted at civil servants in the first place because they refused to do her bidding as part of a deep state conspiracy against Brexit, apparently. Alex Allan’s report is not independent, it’s a continued effort in the war against Brexit: senior civil servants trying to take down a popular minister securing a popular agenda.
This is what these Priti-protectors want us to believe: there is a Deep State. It is against Brexit. Civil servants are strongly against doing popular policies because they want to be despised. Civil servants who work in the Home Office, dedicating their lives to policing and security, are firmly opposed to Priti Patel’s agenda to increase policing and tighten security law. The Deep State has decided, at the eleventh hour, to make a final attempt to sabotage Brexit by trying to remove a Minister (who has very little to do with Brexit), while leaving the Prime Minister (who led the Brexit campaign) well alone.
It reminds me of the old Sherlock Holmes adage: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, must be the truth.” Flip it around: to convince yourself that something implausible is true, you have to first convince yourself that the more plausible alternatives are, in fact, impossible. That’s the magic trick partisanship has pulled off.
It has made it feel literally impossible to believe that Alex Allan is a genuinely independent mind, giving an unbiased opinion. It is impossible to believe that a civil servant who messes up or gets confused or makes a mistake is just a bit useless. And even more impossible to believe that a civil servant who says a policy won’t work is giving accurate, independent advice, instead of pursuing a partisan agenda.
There are some civil servants who don’t particularly like this government: of course. But they don’t stay to sabotage. If they really care, but don’t want to lose the pension, they disappear from the centre and trot off to work on eggs policy or widget regulation for a few years. The vast majority just carry on, and they take their job as loyal servants to their minister extremely seriously. I know this because I worked in a government — the coalition — where there was a Deputy Prime Minister whose very job description included “stopping the Prime Minister and his Cabinet from doing stuff we disagree with”.
That coalition did many things that the Deep State is supposedly against, and for once it had a democratically legitimate ally right in the heart of Whitehall. If the Deep State existed, it would have leveraged us. And yet in five years, our overwhelming experience in engaging with departments was their utter loyalty to their minister, and their minister’s choices, however loopy. In five years there was literally one occasion when we received covert information from a department: from a very junior civil servant who happened to be friends with someone in the DPM’s office. It wasn’t even very useful.
Our civil service is not perfect, but it is independent of politics and loyal to the government of the day. But it isn’t enough for me to believe that. It needs to be believed by ministers, by Parliament, and by the public too. Independence that used to be held up as one of the great accomplishments of the British state but now it is viewed with scepticism by partisans who believe we must all take sides. Partisans who cannot comprehend how to not take sides, or believe failing to do so is collaborating with the enemy. Partisans who say they would never be friends with an MP on the Conservative benches, or believe going on a Pride march is equivalent to trying to overthrow the government.
Independence used to be an aspirational word: while it was never a roaring commercial success, the Independent newspaper captured the spirit of what it meant to be independent: free from fear or favour. The fortunes of the concept have been mirrored by the publication: now it only exists online and it no longer has an independent agenda but mostly parrots the platitudes of the new Left.
We need to fight back against the idea that independence is mindlessness. It is, in fact, the only way to be open minded. Partisans hate to be reminded of the evidence, chronicled in The Political Brain, that taking a political side alters your brain so that you respond emotionally, instead of logically, to facts. To remain independent is to remain flexible, to be free to respond to new evidence and new ideas.
The real danger to the good governance of the nation is not too many independent civil servants, or some imagined Deep State. It is those who have taken sides, closed their minds, and granted themselves the freedom to make, with impunity, the mistakes for which they want their enemies punished.
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