Sir Leigh Lewis: Take this latest anonymous civil service source’s Brexit gripes with a pinch of salt

Written by Sir Leigh Lewis on 11 March 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

The unnamed civil servant setting out their Brexit views should resign to pursue their political ambitions in the open, says former Home Office and DWP perm sec

Reading the supposed revelations on ‘Whitehall’s Brexit Plan’ by an anonymous ‘civil service source’ in The Sunday Times reminded me of the notoriety briefly obtained by a similarly anonymous civil servant in my own department during my time as permanent secretary. The individual who used the moniker ‘Civil Serf’ purported to reveal in a series of blogs the inside story of the department and its then ministers. The civil servant in question was fairly swiftly identified, dismissed and, so far as I know, disappeared into obscurity. A similar fate may well await The Sunday Times’ latest anonymous correspondent.

But both incidents raise the more general question of whether one should ever attach any credence to such anonymous sources. For my own part I was always deeply sceptical of the anonymous letters and emails that from time to time arrived in my office. I also disliked intensely the whole notion of hiding behind such anonymity.

Such communications tended to fall into two categories. In the first, the individual made allegations about an alleged impropriety, often naming one or more people as the alleged perpetrators. In those cases I generally forwarded the allegations to our internal auditors with a request that they investigate. However much I disliked the form of complaint, it was important to try to establish whether there was any substance behind the allegations.


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In the great majority of cases there was not. Most such anonymous sources appeared to be motivated by a personal grudge or animosity towards the alleged wrongdoer and only very rarely did the allegations stand up to examination.

The second category was of the ‘Civil Serf’ or ‘civil service source’ variety. Here the individual claimed, or claims, some wider public duty as the justification for their revelations. In The Sunday Times case the individual clothes him or herself in the mantle of public defender of the Brexit referendum outcome: “To go against the will of the people would be the ultimate act of betrayal.” Such individuals also tend towards self-aggrandisement; The Sunday Times’ mole claims to be “a senior policy professional within the civil service”. Based on past experience, he or she is much more likely to be a junior civil servant albeit with unfulfilled aspirations for greatness.

The real problem with such self-styled champions of truth is not only that their so-called revelations are generally either imagined or grossly exaggerated, but also that they mostly show why the anonymous writers are themselves totally unsuited to the role of being a civil servant. Leave aside the small matter of breaking that most fundamental of civil service values – the duty of confidentiality – they also tend to reveal that they are themselves intensely political and politically motivated. So, in The Sunday Times case the writer reveals him or herself as a passionate Brexiteer: “I am calling firmly on the UK government to allow us to take back control by leaving the EU on World Trade Organisation terms.” That may or may not be a wise course of action but it scarcely suggests a politically neutral civil servant seeking to advise ministers on the basis of the best available analysis and evidence.

So, my advice to The Sunday Times’ ‘civil service source’ is simple: make yourself known to your department and then immediately resign. Pursue your political ambitions in the open, not in the shadow of deceit. And my advice to the readers of The Sunday Times is to take these supposed ‘revelations’ with one of the world’s larger pinches of salt; they almost certainly come from a rather frustrated individual, not from a latter-day Boadicea. They are no more likely to be true than the thousands of other fantasised anonymous claims that regularly fill the social media airwaves.

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Sir Leigh Lewis
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Sir Leigh Lewis was permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions from 2005-10. Amongst other roles he is chair of the alcohol education charity, Drinkaware, and vice chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. 

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