Andrew Greenway: Lord Adonis's comments on the civil service show it's impossible to teach politicians curiosity

Lord Adonis's calls for permanent secretaries to resign are "an unwelcome reminder about the dearth of knowledge most politicians claim to have about the civil service"


By Andrew Greenway

27 Mar 2019

Lord Adonis, Labour peer and arch Remainer, has apparently decided that the civil service is darkly complicit in what I’m going to have to generically describe as "whatever the latest Brexit-related shitshow is", because these columns aren't published within 12 hours of me writing them. 

Adonis, or Andy, as I’m going to call him (because I know how to cut Andrews deep), has taken to Twitter to vent his displeasure with officialdom. In the past few days, he has variously cast aspersions on the cabinet secretary’s neutrality in taking cabinet minutes and said he will 'press for dismissal of permanent secretaries responsible’ for no-deal planning. In particular, he seems vexed that the civil service has spent a considerable amount of time and money preparing for things, and more generally, is angry that officials have continued to calmly carry out the policy of the government of the day. To me, it would be a much, much bigger story if the civil service was not doing either of these things, and I would be stepping up my panic-buying to include items specifically chosen for their barter value. 

When a former minister and not-obviously-stupid person says what seem to be wilfully stupid things, it is hard to fathom exactly why. Adonis feels the need to accuse civil servants of a dereliction of duty, if not a full-on abandonment of their moral consciences. Perhaps this is because he believes that Brexit is precisely the nightmare scenario described by many senior officials past, where an administration with a decidedly loose grip on democratic principles somehow acquires the reins of power. In these cases, the line that civil servants will not cross to serve is going to be a blurry and personal one.

But if you’re going to sign up to the idea of a politically impartial civil service – and this is one of the few constitutional norms not to come up for question in the past few months, even by seriously unhinged people – that line must be drawn very carefully. Like the train emergency cord, unless you are a nutter or a reprobate, it is only pulled in genuine emergencies when the animal brain kicks in and terror overcomes British embarrassment. It would take an astonishing amount of strain for Whitehall to feel that terror and access its animal brain. Leaving the EU is not that moment, and nor should it be. 

Adonis's outbursts imply two interesting things: one that is new, and one that is not. The new news is that having found some detractors in the Remain camp, the civil service should actually feel more comfortable that it has tacked back towards the centre ground of Brexit. The ideal position for those trying to keep the ship afloat must be to have every side of the debate grumbling about officials’ deficiencies, but not apoplectic. While Brexiteers have been lobbing insults and accusations of treachery for some time, the other side had not yet felt the need to. Receiving ill-informed barracking from both sides does at least represent a balanced argument, in much the same way that having a chicken parmo in each hand represents a balanced diet. 

What is not new – but more depressing – is that these kinds of comments provide an unwelcome reminder about the dearth of knowledge most politicians claim to have about the civil service. At best, Adonis is being idiotic. At worst, he is being wilfully disingenuous. Yet he is far from alone in this behaviour. Politicians’ general lack of curiosity about Whitehall is amazing. It is as if a set of people who've wanted to fix the car of their dreams for much of their lives just decide to ignore the toolbox and instruction manual entirely. Even when they actually get the keys to the garage, most continue to ignore the tools and manual lying their on the bench, preferring to try fixing the car by shouting at it. When people describe the civil service as a Rolls Royce, this is apparently what they mean. 

The Institute for Government’s magnificent Ministers Reflect series is full of former ministers who mostly, at least, have the good grace to be a little embarrassed about their ignorance of Whitehall basics when they turned up, and indeed, sometimes after they left. The better kind of ministerial diaries (such as Chris Mullins') show that if you care enough about getting things done as a minister, you can learn enough to get by. But while the IfG offers new ministers training to try and cover some of the bigger gaps, it is impossible for them or anyone else to teach politicians curiosity. If they don’t care about the mechanics, they will continue to stall in office, and indulge in the sort of tree-branch based outrage that John Cleese specialised in. Adonis should know better than that. I’m curious as to why he doesn’t. 

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