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Could the Civil Service be undermining Democracy?

If one were to designate an actor or institution that has suffered the most from the seemingly pervasive turmoil that has beset British politics in the aftermath of the EU referendum, a strong case could be made for the civil service, which has been the subject of relentless criticism spanning the breadth of the political spectrum. Most prominently, elements of the Eurosceptic right have attacked a perceived elitist, pro-European bureaucratic establishment, with high profile conservative commentators such as Charles Moore leading the charge in this respect (earlier this month, subtlety was abandoned in a piece entitled ‘Why are civil servants so hostile to Brexit?’ for The Spectator). However, more recently, the civil service been on the receiving end of particularly strong ire from the left as well.

The outrage in question would be triggered by a piece for The Times on June 28 in which anonymous claims by senior civil servants expressing concerns over Jeremy Corbyn’s capacity to lead the country were published. In particular, they suggested that the Labour leader is “too frail” and not “physically or mentally” prepared for the job, as well as warning of a scenario in which he ends up being “propped up” by his advisors as a result of his supposedly weak grasp of foreign and domestic affairs. Naturally, the piece quickly became mired in controversy, and led many commentators to question whether it was within the prerogative of civil servants – whose job description involves a commitment to political neutrality – to make such a bold intervention in the public arena, and to criticise in such unambiguous terms a political leader they may soon have to serve.

In a piece for The Times, anonymous Whitehall officials suggested that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is “too frail” to be Prime Minister

Now, while many would interpret their statements as a clear indication of an innate bureaucratic bias against politicians and policies that seek to disrupt the status quo –especially if one considers Corbynism an example of insurgent left wing populism – to reach this conclusion would be somewhat premature, especially when taking into consideration the fact that no explicit criticism was made of said political platform. If The Times published a piece in which they quoted civil servants lambasting the Labour leadership’s policy of nationalising the country’s rail infrastructure as ideological and unaffordable, there would be a very clear case to be made against them. However, what we are seeing here are statements purely concerned with the capacities of an individual to hold a position which few would contend inevitably places its inhabitant under immense physical and mental strain.

In addition, their claims are not completely without merit; the domineering role of the ‘four Ms’ – Seumas Milne, Karie Murphy, Andrew Murray and Len McCluskey – in Corbyn’s inner circle has been widely corroborated, and one could easily argue that the proliferation of such information is in the public interest. The state of Theresa May’s leadership team prior to the 2017 election serves as a cautionary tale in this respect; many figures around the ex-Prime Minister at the time have spoken of how the dominance of two advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, led to the cultivation of a toxic working environment and was detrimental to accountability in general; one of the most direct implications of which was the development of the politically disastrous “dementia tax” policy with little external input. As a result, by raising awareness of the deficiencies in the operation of those seeking to run the country, there is a case to be made that the intervention made by the civil servants was justifiably in the public interest.

The domineering role of the ‘four Ms’ – Seumas Milne, Karie Murphy, Andrew Murray and Len McCluskey – in Corbyn’s inner circle has been widely corroborated, and one could easily argue that the proliferation of such information is in the public interest

Nevertheless, it is impossible to know what the true intent of the civil servants who made these remarks about Corbyn were, and even if we were to assume that they were driven by genuine concern over the capabilities of a prospective Prime Minister, what is to prevent their intervention from being interpreted otherwise? In particular, it is perfectly plausible that their statements belie a more general hostility to Corbynism as a political project, and as such were designed to undermine the credibility of its forebearer in the eyes of the general public. This critique is rendered particularly salient when one considers that, as mentioned earlier, the Corbynite brand of leftist politics is fundamentally populist and anti-establishmentarian in its character, hence there might exist a greater incentive among bureaucrats – whose job, by default, and through no fault of their own, often involves the maintenance of the status quo – to discredit those who seek to disrupt it. Yet, for a civil servant to issue a direct, public policy critique would constitute a blatant abdication of their political neutrality – hence the use of a more subtle, insidious tactic: character assassination. By extension, the fact that these comments were made to journalists working for The Times – a publication that by most metrics sits on the centre-right, and has taken a harsh editorial line against Corbyn and his ideological stances – has also done little to dispel the doubts of those suspicious of the civil servants’ true intentions.

It is impossible to know what the true intent of the civil servants who made these remarks about Corbyn were, and even if we were to assume that they were driven by genuine concern over the capabilities of a prospective Prime Minister, what is to prevent their intervention from being interpreted otherwise?

At this stage, you might ask: what difference does it make if a certain political group distrust the civil service? After all, it isn’t the job of a neutral bureaucrat to pander to the sensibilities of what are often highly partisan audiences. This approach is deeply flawed, however, for the reason that we live in a democracy – and for a democracy to function, it is necessary for it to be flanked by a set of institutions that preserve its status as such. Of these institutions, a neutral civil service, is arguably one of the most crucial; if the general public cannot trust the apparatus of the state to implement their will, how can they then be confident in the notion that they do in fact live in a democracy where government is genuinely responsive to their interests? It is against this context that authoritarians, who propose bending the state’s institutions to their will and casting aside constitutional norms have their narrative – that only dictatorial forms of governance are truly representative of the will of the majority – legitimised, and are thus able to thrive.

As a result, it is of vital importance that the civil service refrains from making interventions that could be interpreted as political, regardless of how legitimate they might be; otherwise, they run the risk of empowering and emboldening anti-democratic forces, who seek to mobilise public opinion against them – a risk which is only amplified in an era where democracies the world over have been beset by a toxic form of nationalistic, authoritarian populism. One only needs to observe the political successes of figures such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, whom among others have employed various strategies to subvert the democratic institutions which restrain them, to understand the stakes at play; it is vital that Britain does not follow this path.

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