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Four years and counting of morally incontinent Brexit psychodrama. Dozens of “operations” with quasi-military designations: Brock, Kingfisher, Stack, and, of course, Yellowhammer. Billions of pounds spent on no-deal preparations, including the redeployment of tens of thousands of civil servants like me who have been repeatedly marched up to the precipice, down and back up again. This is our third tilt at oblivion, and it isn’t getting any easier.
As before, those frightful figures now boil down to two dismal choices. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that the prime minister still hasn’t decided which reality we will leap into, in this Schrödinger’s cat’s Brexit (yes, there is a deal; no, there isn’t).
Meanwhile, the standing instruction to Whitehall, as it has been for weeks, is to prepare again for the worst. Which for thousands of us means working both scenarios over Christmas, including the preparation of billions in no-deal rescue packages for sectors much bigger than fishing, and hoping it will be enough (it won’t be).
To find out exactly how it came to this, and what that will mean for British public life, will have to wait for the inevitable blizzard of public inquiries.
For now, it’s worth mentioning that the nation’s Zoom-haunted civil servants have come through two waves of the pandemic in relatively good shape. Sure, we’ve been mercilessly briefed against, harangued to get back to our offices, and now our pay has again been frozen. But at least we are able to work and are still being paid.
Let me be very clear, though: we weren’t ready for no deal in March last year (the first time we faced this looming crash-out deadline), and we’re not ready now. How on earth could we be? It’s not just that the pandemic has for six months consumed so much of Whitehall’s bandwidth, but also that so many senior civil servants have gone or been thrown under the Brexit bus, while thousands of customs officials and other Brexit-related roles have been left unfilled. And the bosses who’ve stuck around still can’t tell us exactly what Boris Johnson’s decision will be. We aren’t convinced even he knows.
You might ask, given that the first months of 2021 are likely to resemble scenes from a disaster movie (maybe The Perfect Storm), what keeps civil servants going? I’ll tell you: solidarity. With each other, with the long-suffering British public, and with our partners in Europe with whom we have to keep working to keep planes flying, ferries sailing, and food and medical supplies flowing.
At the risk of sounding like a snowflake, yes, I’m talking about basic, old-fashioned goodwill. But it’s not just for Christmas. It’s the lifeblood of the uniquely fragile British system of governance. It is the heartbeat of public service delivery. And thanks to this government’s relentless, remorseless and world-beating destruction of it, we are bleeding out.
Trade tariffs and chaotic borders are bad enough. But if Long-Brexit Britain is to avoid becoming Orwell’s Airstrip One, we are going to need a reset of this government’s modus operandi, and fast. In other words, the reckless and systemic bullying approach it applies to every policy challenge needs to be stood down before it’s too late.
First, the bullying of the civil service. Morale was grim even before the prime minister set his disastrous precedent in exonerating Priti Patel after Sir Alex Allan’s independent investigation concluded she had breached the ministerial code. By dismissing it all as trivia, Johnson legitimised the home secretary’s behaviour and made it harder for future victims to come forward. As the civil service union boss, Dave Penman, recently implied, how can the public and 400,000 civil servants have any confidence that the prime minister will make these kinds of decisions on evidence rather than political loyalty?
Second, the bullying of our European partners. Even before the government’s threats to send in the gunboats, there were plenty of other examples of how our tantrum diplomacy is demonstrating to the world how worthless the goodwill of others seems to be to us – a fact European commission president Ursula von der Leyen wryly referred to when she said “trust is good but law is better”. Quite.
In times like these, you’d perhaps expect a relaxation of the rigour of government procurement processes. But when bids for multimillion-pound contracts are 10 times more likely to be successful for those already close to ministers, then the prime minister’s rampant chumocracy is spaffing vast reservoirs of public money and undermining public trust.
Further, in its treatment of the Windrush generation, the Home Office was recently found to have broken equalities laws. This prompted the public accounts committee to conclude that the Home Office had “frighteningly little grasp” of the impact of its policies.
The plummeting of public trust in government shows that ministerial deceit no longer surprises anyone. Thanks to the truth-twisting perfected by Vote Leave in 2016, lying and evasion has since been normalised to an extent never before seen in public life. Michael Gove even created a Ministry of Truth-style unit that will doubtless end up concealing exactly the kind of inconvenient information that future public inquiries will rely on.
Having worked at the heart of several large Whitehall departments since the Tony Blair years, I can tell you the cultural divergence between Whitehall and the government has never been wider. I’ve also worked closely with many hundreds of civil servants at every level of seniority, and all (assuming none are secret columnists) have been serious about upholding the Nolan principles for public life. Yet, increasingly, civil servants are bearing witness to what ex-MI5 chief Jonathan Evans recently called “a culture of impunity seeping into British governance”.
That is why, amid the very present threat of no deal, civil servants are hanging on to the hope that, while goodwill is a perishable resource, it can be renewed. It must be, for all our sakes.
• The civil servant works in a Whitehall department and was part of Operation Yellowhammer
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Goodwill is the civil service’s lifeblood – this bullying government is using it up fast | Civil service