Priti Patel is an elected politician. More than that, she is the U.K. Home Secretary and a leading figure in the newly-elected Johnson government. More even than that, she is charged with putting an immigration policy into action which will limit the migration of unskilled workers whose presence in UK is arguably a drain upon the economy – a responsible task requiring dedication and efficiency.
So when her Permanent Secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, tendered his resignation and levelled an accusation of ‘bullying’ against Mrs Patel, he trained the media spotlight on an aspect of governing that counts for its very existence upon maintaining the lowest of profiles. And to me, at least, that raises a number of questions the answers to which are long overdue.
What is the most important component of Sir Philip’s job description – I mean, aside from being the head honcho in the Home Office? The word ‘Permanent’, because permanent is what he is, or was, had he not decided to throw in the towel so publicly. His job was to answer directly to Mrs Patel and to lead his department in facilitating her brief. He, and those beneath him, are Civil Servants.
Civil Servants are not elected. They do not have to subject themselves to public vote every five years. They are career beavers who should form the engine room of policy for whoever is elected. Their employment structure is secure, with retirement and a healthy pension at the end. At their best, they are the steadying influence behind a volatile electoral system. They make sure there are plenty of logs in the store. But beavers have another use for logs: they build dams. At their worst, Civil Servants are a stultifying, reactionary crew whose principle career ambition is to keep Friday afternoon free for golf.
Is mere reluctance to accept change at the root of Sir Philip’s quarrel with Mrs Patel? The speedy implementation of new regulations promised by the Johnson government is demanding and certainly not conducive to short working weeks or comfortable evenings at the club. Or is there something more sinister here? Lately, the stolid, wooden efficiency of the old Civil Service seems to have been supplanted by an altogether more media-aware and loose-tongued institution. For example, almost every move by Mrs May’s cabinet was ‘leaked’ from somewhere in the system before it was announced, or even fully ‘fleshed out’. Under Mr Johnson’s stewardship, there has already been a purge at The Treasury, with one member of staff having been almost literally ‘frog-matched’ out of Downing Street. Did Sir Philip act pre-emptively? Was the Home Office about to be similarly scoured?
Speaking personally, I am not particularly a fan of Mrs Patel. For me, her public speaking fails to inspire. She is, perhaps, determined rather than passionate; but that does not mean she is a bully, or capable of ‘ranting and shouting’ as her accuser claims. Those at the top of the Civil Service, known these days as ‘mandarins’, are all male. Since 1983, the 12 Principal Private Secretaries to the Prime Minister have all been men; while women form 53% of Civil Service staff, none have reached mandarin status. It is a male preserve that several female ministers claim to have found obstructive and critical. Priti Patel is a British citizen of Ugandan Asian parentage – it shouldn’t, but does her ethnicity also have a bearing on this situation?
I find it distressing that at the heart of one of the most gender- and racially- tolerant nations in the world, at the seat of government that ought also to be a paragon of intelligence and the paradigm for equality, there is this arterial sclerosis of sexism and racism. I have experienced communism festering in the wormholes of the ex-industrial towns of the north (more of this in another blog) but xenophobia rampant about the tiller of power? Surely we should expect better?