Sir Leigh Lewis: time to give the civil service the credit it deserves on Brexit

Written by Sir Leigh Lewis on 31 October 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Brexit has created a political crisis, but the civil service has stopped it becoming even more destructive, says the former DWP perm sec

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So, this so called “rotten” parliament is almost gone. We are going to have a general election – the first in December in my lifetime and that’s a pretty long time now. A new era will dawn on 13 December in which Brexit will be quickly resolved one way or the other and a stable government with a clear majority will take us forward as a nation to the sunny uplands and heal our wounds... or possibly not; we will have to wait and see.

But perhaps let’s spare a thought as we head into the election campaign for what my old institution – the civil service – has had to do and endure since the EU referendum nearly three and a half years ago. 

Few of our great institutions have emerged well from those intervening three and a half years; certainly not our two main political parties which have been riven by bitter personal rivalries, warring factions and defections; certainly not parliament which – despite the obvious sincerity and at times bravery in the face of sustained abuse of some of its individual members – has simply been unable to find any way of giving effect to the result of the referendum which commands majority support; and certainly not the fourth estate – the press – which has far too often stoked up division, indeed at times close to hatred, over Brexit (has there ever been a more appalling headline in our lifetime than the one in the Daily Mail after the first Gina Miller case which described the judiciary as ‘The Enemies of the People’?) when it could have been a force for moderation and reconciliation.


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I would spare only two institutions from this bill of indictment. The first is indeed the judiciary. In their key judgements over Brexit – especially in the recent landmark judgement of the Supreme Court over the prorogation of parliament – the judiciary have stood up for the rule of law when it would almost certainly have been easier, or at least less contentious, to have ducked the issues and left the politicians to do their worst. In so doing they will almost certainly have stopped any future government from thinking that it can stand parliamentary democracy on its head whenever it feels like it without any risk that the courts will intervene.

The second, I believe, is the civil service. While under sustained attack – both in general and, shamefully at times, in respect of individual civil servants by name – for allegedly being some kind of fifth column intent on thwarting the result of the referendum, it has gone on quietly doing what it does best: supporting the government of the day to deliver its policy. Thus it has supported both Theresa May and Boris Johnson to secure a Brexit deal with the EU; it has continued from all that I have read and inferred to speak truth unto power – even when that power has taken the form of some pretty unsavoury politicians and political advisers – and it has undertaken probably the largest contingency planning exercise that has ever been put in place in the UK in peacetime, Operation Yellowhammer, to reduce and mitigate the impact of a no-deal Brexit.

And then there’s what it hasn’t done. It has not, viewed from the outside at least, compromised its integrity; it has maintained its professionalism and not resorted to the tactics of some of its detractors – off the record briefings or other dark arts – to hit back at its critics; and, most importantly, it has not been prepared to lend its name to untruth or deception. One of the most telling moments in the Supreme Court hearing on prorogation was when Treasury Counsel said that he was not in a position to offer the court any evidence as to the reasons for the government’s decision to prorogue. Was that, I wonder, because key civil servants simply refused to countenance any such reasons being put forward which they knew to be false? 

In the end we will, of course, emerge somehow or other as a nation from the paralysis which has followed the referendum. Whether we will do so as a still United Kingdom remains to be seen. But if and when we do, I think a great deal of credit for our malaise not having been even more destructive than it has been should go to that much-maligned institution, the civil service. I hope at some stage it may more widely be given the credit that it deserves.

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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 until his retirement at the end of 2010. Amongst his current roles he is chair of the alcohol education charity Drinkaware, and vice chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

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