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Thursday 04 January 2018

Picking up the pieces

By Dave Penman
The failure of Britain’s political leadership over Brexit has left civil servants exposed to insults and scapegoating, says FDA General Secretary Dave Penman.

© Jess Hurd/reportdigital.co.uk

As the realities of trying to deliver Brexit start to bite, laying bare the incoherent and contradictory positions of both government and opposition,  the scapegoating of the civil service has begun in earnest. Perhaps it was always going to be thus, but it’s no less disappointing for its predictability.

Through the inevitable cycle of crisis then breakthrough, played out too often to be a Machiavellian strategy, each episode was either the fault of wily Sir Humphreys manipulating the poor Jim Hackers, or a failure of the civil service to abandon its impartiality and deliver us from the evils of Brexit.

Disentangling the UK from 40 years of EU membership was always going to be a Herculean task for the civil service. To stand any chance, it needed greater resources, new areas of capability and, crucially, clear political leadership. While the FDA has been banging on about the resources and capability gaps, the truth is the greatest risk to a successful Brexit is the failure of political leadership. A minority government weakened  by a series of self-inflicted wounds – that cannot agree with itself never mind the party it relies on for its survival – is no recipe for the clear and strong leadership needed.

While the party in government is tearing itself apart, HM’s loyal Opposition is equally divided, even if it is better at hiding that fact as it smells blood in the water. Post-election talk of a cross-party commission to oversee the Brexit process, and build a broad consensus at a time of deep division, has foundered on the rock of partisan political ambition.

The Brextremists and Remoaners have developed into opposing cults, lambasting those that do not support their one true belief. Following the soap opera of Priti Patel’s resignation, the main qualification for her replacement appeared to be which cult they were a disciple of, demonstrating once again the ability of Brexit to suffocate the broader agenda of government.

Amid all of this chaos, the civil service has been getting on with its job, working quickly to establish two new departments and coordinating people and policy in a way many had assumed it was not capable of.

Contrary to populist belief, civil servants have relished the challenge, regardless of their own political preference, because that is what being a civil servant is all about. Underpaid and under-resourced, they continue to  work tirelessly to deliver the best possible outcome for the UK.

Maybe we shouldn’t expect those who cannot conceive of  that kind of non-tribal commitment to understand. Their world is dominated by trenches from where they lob their cynical, vindictive insults blindly at any perceived enemy. Trench warfare is not about making progress, it’s not about finding solutions – it’s warfare for the sake of it.

So, whilst insults are hurled and individuals who are unable to respond are publicly vilified, civil servants will be concentrating on trying to solve the latest crisis created by the country’s political leadership. Because that’s what being a civil servant is all about.


Dave Penman is the General Secretary of the FDA and can be found on Twitter @FDAGenSec.
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