Accusations of bullying would be attendant on serious misconduct, relating to personal insults and harassment, persistent acts of demonstrable aggression and potential physical threats. Unless you’re an unpopular or controversial government minister, in which case bullying equates to being terse and impatient, demanding work be done on time and, at its most serious, raising your hand to interrupt someone speaking. Such are the conclusions of Adam Tolley’s investigation into the Dominic Raab bullying claims. And at the end of it, Raab wasn’t a bully. He was rude, and the action of suggesting that a civil servant may have broken the Civil Service Code was interpreted as a threatening action (although this wasn’t the intention).
Yet in our Orwellian world that means that Raab is a bully. “Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS union, which represents civil servants, said: ‘Whilst I am happy to see Raab go, this is nothing more than the latest in a line of high-ranking government members who have been caught in the act, and subsequently called out on it … Dominic Raab has been proven to be a bully, but this government has got away with treating its own workforce appallingly’”. The report itself is meaningless. All that matters are the allegations irrespective of their veracity or context. This gives the Civil Service a substantial power over ministers which they have duly wielded.
The most interesting part of Tolley’s report concerned the origin of the bullying complaints from the MoJ group complaint. “The MoJ Group Complaint was prepared by a group of non-SCS policy officials and is signed collectively. It was the product of discussions within an informal network of civil servants whose number is uncertain”. “Only some of those individuals had any direct experience of the DPM; some had never met him at all but were seeking to support their colleagues. Each individual was entirely open about what they could or could not say. The substantive content of the MoJ Group Complaint is therefore limited but it paved the way for the MoJ Additional Complaints and so too, albeit indirectly, the FCDO Complaint and the DExEU Complaint”.
This group complaint was originally made in March 2022, before it was then leaked to the media in November. Its nature as a group complaint presents a strange dynamic in that it was this complaint that started the process but the complaint itself was not upheld due to it containing complainants with no experience of Raab, involving themselves to support colleagues. Whether intended or not, and particularly considering the complaint was leaked to the media, this has the hallmarks of an organised plot against the DPM. Whether this is due to personal discord or ideological reasons is unclear.
Similar findings of “bullying” have been levelled against controversial ministers before, suggesting a pattern of weaponization to affect political outcomes i.e. stopping the government’s immigration policy. As in Raab’s case, Patel was found to have been rude to civil servants and treated them in a manner that could be interpreted as unintentional bullying. But the contexts of these claims also contain ideological and cultural connotations (i.e. related to workplace culture and practices).
Consider the two senior civil servants that raised complaints against Patel and Raab, Hugh Elliott and Philip Rutnam respectively. Both had track records of failure and incompetence yet neither have been held to account. In Rutnam’s case, they bungled from one department to the next. This isn’t to deny the veracity of potential bullying, but to suggest that incompetent civil servants must be held accountable much as politicians are expected to be. And incompetent officials tend to, either inadvertently or purposefully, obfuscate and frustrate a minister’s programme of work and reform.
Beyond these specific cases, there is a wider ideological fault line between the current government’s priorities around immigration and human rights law, and the civil service’s interpretation of its own obligations through the Civil Service Code. A caseworker in the Home Office accused the government of “worsening backlog with ‘ludicrous’ attempts to bar asylum seekers who passed through France”. Another official said “concerns were also mounting inside the Home Office that recruitment efforts for asylum caseworkers and staff from ethnic minorities are being hampered by ‘reputational damage from the Rwanda deal and wider asylum narrative’”. These are effectively questions of policy which pushes the boundaries of the Code itself. While they have said that they could potentially be breaking the law by implementing the Illegal Migration Bill, the interpretation of this is entirely dependent on an abstract understanding of international law as binding on the UK rather than on parliamentary legislation. A legalistic, human rights-led form of liberalism appears to dominate here, despite claims by the caseworker that they are “right-leaning”. It’s a strange form of right-wing thought that is happy to see vast numbers of asylum seekers, many of whom have no legitimate asylum claim, come to this country.
Tensions have emerged between a liberal, managerialist civil service and a series of governments with a populist veneer in their legislative programmes. We are seeing this play out in matters related to law and order and to immigration, where the potential for reform which is nominally populistic or conservative in that it aims to reform the scope of parole board powers and recommendations, lengthen minimum sentencing and change the guidelines, or attempt to reduce the number of illegal migrants and asylum seekers entering the UK is scuppered by civil servants who both want to maintain the veil of neutral expertise while also laying out a policy agenda that they support.
But then this shouldn’t be surprising considering the shared educational and university backgrounds of civil servants that inculcates shared ideological expectations and parameters for acceptable thought. The majority of permanent secretaries and diplomats attended independent schools and graduated from Oxbridge, with the wider element graduating from Russell Group universities. Elite institutions have been at the forefront of cohering a legalistic activism that aims to frustrate popular thinking in favour of minoritarian interests. As Dashan notes regarding Yale, there is a symbiotic relationship between the emerging elite of students and the university leadership (primarily administrators and favourable academics) who encourage and codify a culture of repression, where minor acts have larger repercussions. “If your only standard for membership in your power coalition is detailed adherence to your ideology, as is increasingly true for membership in elite circles, then it becomes very hard to correct mistakes, or switch to a different paradigm”. Thus retrenchment into an established position. When this position is disturbed, a backlash occurs. A network of civil servants can confect a committee to elucidate minor allegations of rudeness and pettiness into a serious case of workplace bullying. As a result, legislation and reform become impossible to implement as you never know when you’ll be accused of something because you’ve annoyed the wrong people.
I’m not defending the Conservative government. They’re equally to blame for creating this problem by failing to look at reforming the Civil Service or the governing codes. Like every government since the 1990s, they are besotted with the quangocracy and regularly give money and government favours to the wider blob of charities and NGOs, many of whose staff flit between this sector and the public sector. They have also passed equalities legislation that adds more legalistic framing to the arguments the Civil Service are now using. In response to the Raab bullying allegations, I wouldn’t be surprised if this government set up an independent commission to look at reforms to the Ministerial and Civil Service codes. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that commission recommended an independent, permanent non-governmental body be organised to govern the relations between the Civil Service and government, which the government would duly adopt. They will only ever feed the quangocracy.
These tensions won’t go away. So long as events like Brexit and the 2019 GE vote can happen and the public continue to hanker for greater immigration restriction and more inward investment into the UK, there will always be an enemy to the Civil Service. Because this is fundamentally the point. The Civil Service has constituted itself as an ideological bloc, a bulwark against the diminution of its expertise and power. “Here we find the same paranoia, the same despair, the same feeling of permanent siege. Britain’s governing class believes that society is in a process of violent dissolution, and that an iron hand can alone save it”. So long as it feels under siege by these phantom populists and demanding ministers, they will entrench themselves against all reform that does not fit their interests. We have a fully politicised civil service, whether we recognise it or not.
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