Esther McVey suggested rainbow-coloured lanyards are a form of "political activism". We asked what they mean to you


This week has brought another wave of criticism for the civil service, with "common sense minister" Esther McVey announcing a package of changes to the way equality, diversity and inclusion are handled in government. As well as taking aim at EDI roles – of which she said there are the equivalent of around 400 full-time posts, representing less than 0.1% of civil servants – McVey also hit out at staff networks and "non-standard" lanyards.

Lanyards, McVey said, "shouldn't be a random pick and mix, they should be a standard design reflecting that we are all members of the government delivering for the citizens of the UK" – suggesting that they were a way of bringing political views into the civil service "by the back door".

Asked what was wrong with rainbow-coloured key cords used to signify affinity or allyship with the LGBT+ community, McVey said: “You don’t need political activism in a visible way… you’re putting it on to make a statement, and what we’re saying is actually, your political beliefs remain at the front door and when you come in, you’re part of a happy team.”

Fresh guidance published after McVey’s speech did not include the lanyard decree, and the minister herself appears to have rowed back on her comments – telling Channel 4 “there was never a mention of a ban”. But she nevertheless made her stance clear: “It’s all about impartiality of the civil service and what happens in Whitehall, and people to leave their political beliefs at the door,” she said.

But are rainbow lanyards really about politics? CSW asked civil servants why they choose to wear them – and what it means to them.

"My reason for wearing a lanyard is to reinforce that anyone can progress in the civil service, no matter their identity"

"My reason for wearing a lanyard is to reinforce that anyone can progress in the civil service, no matter their identity.

"When I joined the service in 1999, section 28 was still in force, there were no legal rights against discrimination in employment or the provision of goods and services, no gender recognition, no civil partnerships and no same sex marriage. But the chief executive of the agency I joined pointed out to me that there were LGBT people in senior roles in the department, and everyone was welcome. I’m paying back the encouragement he gave me in one small way by wearing a rainbow lanyard."

- A senior civil servant


"They can provide explicit visual cues that can help you make a personal, social, professional, cultural connection"

"As an older person in the civil service I think colourful, themed or badged-up lanyards are amazing. In an era where it can be difficult to start up conversations with colleagues you don't know, lanyards can signal professional interests, affiliations, whether they're an LGBTI+ ally, maybe where they've worked before, or what they're into.

"Basically, they can provide explicit visual cues that can help you make a personal, social, professional, cultural connection.

"What makes me laugh about the Common Sense Queen's intervention is that all of the above is consistent with civil servants being in the office and talking to each other – isn't that what she wants?"

- @TheCivilSavant


"It’s a small gesture from that says: 'It's okay to be LGBT+ here'"

"It really wasn't very long ago that your sexuality – if you were anything other than heterosexual – was a subject of secrecy. Civil servants, much like other professionals, did not share those elements of their lives for fear of career limitation or, indeed, career-ending rumours. Straightness was (and oftentimes still is) the default assumption.

"It is through no small effort on the part of a campaigning community – including allies – that, for lots of people in the UK, that has changed. This ongoing effort is not to convince people of a 'contested ideology' but simply to challenge presumptions.

"I have always been grateful for feeling that I could 'be myself at work' in the civil service. When I first joined – early in my career, just under a decade ago – I would use euphemisms and avoid contributing to certain conversations when colleagues discussed their life outside work. I would use non-gendered language about dates or partners and I would be deliberately unspecific when talking about where I spent my time. I did this not because I felt particularly uncomfortable. It was simply because I was the odd one out: no one else mentioned anything that wasn't pretty 'heteronormative' so I didn't either. 

"I have grown in confidence in my years in the civil service now, I'm also more senior than I was then. So I no longer feel I have to hide the fact that I am a man with a husband. Or that I might have gone to a gay bar, club or holiday destination. But its not just about my confidence. Attitudes have gradually changed and more people generally feel confident. To change attitudes, we all need little prompts, don't we – to feel safe in a place or a community we look for signs. A rainbow lanyard is a tiny little sign – a nudge – that in this place, it is okay to talk about your life as an LGBT+ person. 

"It’s a small gesture from anyone that wears them, whether that's someone who identifies as LGBT+, or an 'ally', that says: 'It's okay to be LGBT+ here'. It says: 'Talk about your same sex partner in front of me.' It says: 'Yes! I want to know all the details of your night out in Soho.' It says: 'You can talk to me when LGBT+ people are being demonised in the media and you're finding it tough.'

"Anyone who thinks it means anything more than that needs to spend more time talking to people who wear rainbow lanyards."

- A Grade 7 policy professional

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