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Analysis

Politicians politicising civil service

Muddle and manipulation in political harem

by Brian Reading in London

Thu 5 Jan 2017

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Sir Ivan Rogers publicly resigned from his post as UK ambassador to the European Union on Tuesday. Brexiteers were delighted, while Remain supporters rushed to castigate Theresa May’s government. Former top civil servants deplored the loss of an experienced EU expert and negotiator and sprang to the defence of those officials who oversee the political harem. This is symptomatic of the politicisation and satire of civil servants in popular culture.

‘Spin’ and manipulation now permeate all government reports, notably Budget ‘red books’ (the documented version of the chancellor of the exchequer’s annual statement). One example was the Treasury’s questionable estimates of the cost of leaving the EU, based on dubious assumptions but claimed by previous Chancellor George Osborne to be ‘facts’. Forty years ago such official documents were devoid of spin. When abused by politicians, civil servants’ impartiality is bound to be questioned.

Sir Tim Barrow, whose CV illustrates a wealth of expertise as a foreign office veteran and former ambassador to Russia, is to replace Rogers. His quick appointment illustrates that nobody is irreplaceable. Sir Simon Fraser, former head of the diplomatic service, observed, ‘You don’t appoint [ambassadors] for what they believe. You appoint them for what they know.’ This sounds somewhat naïve.

Like everybody, civil servants have their political orientation. But it is mainly politicians who are to blame for politicising the civil service, such as by the appointment of a swarm of special advisers. I was one of the first, advising Edward Heath for six years when he was leader of the Conservative opposition and then became prime minister.

My advice was genuinely apolitical as an economic expert. I was never a member of the Conservative party and nobody ever asked me if I was. I went to Heath after working for George Brown at the department of economics affairs while he was deputy leader of the Labour party. I left quietly in 1972 out of frustration that my advice was never taken, and my departure to The Economist went entirely without media comment. Heath rewarded me with a glass of sweet sherry.

The role of a civil servant is solely to advise and implement government policy, not determine it. Nonetheless, former civil servants reveal bias, as evidenced in a letter which Rogers sent to his staff describing the government’s ‘muddled thinking’. It is well known that the interests of the present administration capture departments. The foreign office and especially its European desks are notable examples. Lord Nicholas Macpherson, permanent secretary to the Treasury between 2005-16, admonished, ‘I only hope Ivan’s departure is not about shooting the messenger.’

Rogers resigned from frustration that his messages about the challenges of Brexit were unheeded. But then, it is already accepted that negotiations with the remaining 27 EU members will be difficult and potentially long drawn out. He cannot possibly know how long it may take. The leak of a memo in which Rogers said that negotiations might last for 10 years was inevitably seen by some as support for the Remain camp, but he was not telling the ‘truth’ any more than Osborne’s costs forecasts were ‘facts’. He was offering an expert opinion.

James Callaghan, prime minister between 1976-79, appointed his son-in-law Peter Jay as ambassador to the US on the suggestion of Foreign Secretary David Owen. Unless there is a degree of like-mindedness between ambassador and government, frustration is inevitable. Far too many people will now be looking to see how Barrow performs.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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