It isn’t a good time to be a public servant in the United Kingdom. As the General Election campaign enters its final weeks, with the ruling Conservative Party still well ahead in the polls, the rhetoric is becoming increasing aggressive towards anyone who dares to question the Government’s main election plank — its headlong rush to exit the European Union.
‘Do you stand with Britain or with the EU?’ was the question in one newspaper headline, demanding that the nation “rally behind Brexit”. The right-wing media is encouraged by an increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister and Ministers who, according to some insiders, are treating senior public servants more like hired hands than trusted advisers.
This is not because the various Permanent Secretaries and other senior officials are seeking to derail Brexit; rather they are simply pointing out the pitfalls along the way and the requirement for additional resources to fill them — not unreasonable considering cuts to the Public Service over the past seven years that have left it smaller than at any time since World War II.
While Prime Minister Theresa May persists in saying it is ‘she’ who will be going to Brussels and that ‘I’ will be conducting the negotiations, in reality it is the Public Service who will be doing the heavy lifting and if the whole Brexit mess disintegrates, it is the hopelessly over-stretched service that will be fingered for the blame.
Much of the problem lies with the increasing influence of ‘special advisers’ to Ministers who are supplementing and even supplanting the advice that was once the prerogative of Permanent Secretaries. It is a trend that has been going on for decades, but has been taken to a new level in the current administration.
The stories going the rounds in Whitehall are that May listens only to her two senior advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who have been given the power to slap down any public servant who dares to warn of dangers ahead.
The spin they pump out is that in the face of a triumphant Prime Minister strengthened by a resounding election win, EU negotiators will fall over themselves to give the UK a favourable trade deal almost before the ink on the final exit documents is dry.
That is nonsense of course and senior bureaucrats past and present know it, but the fantasy is ruthlessly pursued and should the Government get the majority everyone is forecasting there will be no more stoplights on the road to ruin.
One only has to look across the Atlantic to see an example of what happens when a leader goes rogue. President Donald Trump went to Washington promising to “drain the swamp” but in less than four months is fast sinking into a swamp of his own making.
Trump is facing the reality that it is one thing to deliver slogans to adoring audiences in a school hall in Indiana, quite another to produce legislation that makes any kind of sense in the world of realpolitik.
If good comes out of the continuing catastrophe of his administration it should be the demise of the myth beloved by the Tea Party right that Governments can be run like businesses and that it only needs good, solid business sense to solve all the problems of the world.
In France, which has a more sophisticated electorate than in many Anglo-Saxon countries, the so-called rise of the right received a severe and deserved setback.
While he likes to portray himself as an outsider, newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron knows the reforms he plans can only be worked through with the support of knowledgeable and talented functionaries in the various Ministries that make up the continuing system of government.
That lesson has come too late for Brexit. What happens in Washington in the days, weeks and months ahead, is anyone’s guess.