If activism is your thing, then the civil service, (which is more into passivism) couldn’t be a worse career choice. Credit: Ben Stansall / AFP / STANSALL/ GETTY

April 22, 2021   4 mins

British politics is turning upside down. Conservative support is growing in the North and among working class voters, while Labour has made progress in parts of the South and among the middle class voters.

Unluckily for Sir Keir, the Labour gains aren’t enough to offset the Tory advance. The electoral map isn’t inverting completely. It’s getting bluer at the top, but, like a disappointed baboon, it’s not much redder at the bottom.

Except that from a ministerial desk in Whitehall, things might not seem that way. With younger, London-based graduates leaning evermore to the Left, then, for Tory ministers, enemy-held territory starts right outside the office door.

The Conservatives maybe the “natural party of government”, but things have been tense with the civil service ever since Margaret Thatcher proclaimed her intention to “roll back the frontiers of the state”.

Though the Tories have been busy of late rolling those frontiers forward again, this hasn’t made the relationship with civil servants any easier. In fact, the relationship is acquiring paranoid undertones. Only last weekend, a story appeared in the Mail on Sunday alleging the existence of a Labour spy ring somewhere in Whitehall. That’s almost certainly nonsense, but one can see why ministers might be feeling a little jumpy.

In any workplace, it helps if you feel that you and your colleagues are on the same side. But in Whitehall, that’s rather in doubt. Certainly, the politicians are outnumbered. There are about a hundred ministers, but hundreds of thousands of civil servants.

Of course, the civil servants that matter most to ministerial life are only a small fraction of the overall number. Most immediately there are those who sit in the minister’s Private Office. This is a misleading name, because there’s nothing private about it. Apart from the occasional special advisor or speechwriter, a minister has very little control over the staff who literally surround him, or her. As soon as he walks out of his physical office, there they are waiting for him — people appointed by someone else to provide an all-enveloping interface with the outside world.

That “someone else”, by the way, is the department’s Permanent Secretary — whose own office and staff are never very far away.

These are the most politically-sensitive parts of the civil service and they take extreme care to be politically neutral — and to be seen as such. Nevertheless, civil servants are people too and people have opinions. So how many of the civil servants that most closely serve this Conservative government are actually Leftwing?

Well, judging from my own experience of working in two government departments, I would say approximately all of them. Not that you need any special insight here. You only have to walk around a ministerial Private Office to get the picture. The staff are young — most of them in their twenties and thirties. They’re all university educated — largely in the humanities and social sciences — and thus have been wokishly catechised. To purchase this dubious privilege, they’ve had to take out hefty student loans, which they’re now paying back out of their modest salaries. Of their remaining money, most of it is paid to some landlord to rent a room in an overpriced London suburb. So, yes, of course they’re Lefties.

If the hyperactive fools who run Downing Street weren’t so concerned with backroom politics and conspiracy theories, then they might want do something about a system that churns out a hostile graduate workforce from which the civil service is recruited. But why engage in serious systemic reform when you can be briefing out cock-and-bull stories to the tabloid press?

Going to war with the civil service as it is now would be a terrible mistake for the Government. Whether or not Whitehall harbours hardcore Lefties leaking secrets to Labour is unimportant, because they’re not representative of the civil service as whole. Even among London-based public sector professionals there is more than one kind of Left-winger — and it’s important to distinguish between them.

It has become fashionable for pollsters to divide the country not just by party preference (which can change), but also by ‘political tribe’ which reflects underlying values. For instance, research conducted for More in Common identifies seven political tribes — from “Progressive Activists” to “Backbone Conservatives”.

It’s tempting to place our younger civil servants in the “Progressive Activist” category — which is the most Leftwing of the seven tribes. This grouping is notorious for its disproportionately gobby presence on social media. However, our civil servants — especially those working in Private Offices — are anything but outspoken in their opinions. If activism is your thing, then the civil service, (which is more into passivism) couldn’t be a worse career choice.

If there is a political tribe that our civil servants naturally belong to, it’s a group called the “Civic Pragmatists”. This tribe is also Left-leaning, but unlike the “Progressive Activists” they’re far from confrontational. More in Common describes them as “a group that cares about others, at home or abroad, and who are turned off by the divisiveness of politics… they are charitable, concerned, exhausted, community-minded, open to compromise, and socially liberal.”

The civil service might not always attract the most adventurous of souls, but many of its recruits are looking for more than a regular pay check — they also want to do something meaningful and public spirited with their lives.

From a Conservative viewpoint, the real danger is not that these people are subversives. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Far from wanting to smash the system, they’re all too inclined to perpetuate well-meaning, but stagnant, public sector orthodoxies. As such, they become absorbed into the Whitehall ‘blobs’ that stand in the way of meaningful reform.

Is there anything that a reforming Conservative government can do about this? One way is for ministers and their special advisors to challenge the system, Cummings-style. But while I’m all for a spot of creative confrontation, true change comes from persistence of effort. And as long as ministers and their advisors are moved every few years (or months) that will be cut short. And don’t forget that any civil servants that fully get behind a particular reform effort will get moved too — and thus reabsorbed into the blob.

There is a way forward, however, which is to restructure bits of government around the delivery of strategic missions. This would allow the most entrepreneurial and idealistic civil servants to be recruited with the promise that their dedication to a reforming project will be properly recognised and rewarded over the long-term. Given the shining example of the vaccine development and procurement programme, there’s never been a better to promote a mission-led government.

Of course, that approach would require Conservative politicians to accept that the state can be a solution as well as a problem. Hopefully, that’s not too Leftwing an idea for them to swallow.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.