Dave Penman: impartiality and integrity are under attack - conspiracy theorists take note

The Northern Ireland Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry shows what can happen when these values are undermined, writes the FDA chief

The chairman of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry Sir Patrick Coghlin (centre) speaking at the opening of the RHI inquiry in Belfast. Credit: PA

By Dave Penman

04 Oct 2018

Andrew Murray, adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, recently speculated that the delay to him gaining a security pass at the House of Commons could be part of a wider “deep state” conspiracy against him and, by extension, the Labour opposition.

“Taxpayer funded” forces were at play, according to Murray, coordinating with the Ukrainian secret service and the Daily Mail to thwart an anti-war Labour government from gaining power.

He’s not alone. Owen Jones, Corbyn’s second favourite Guardian columnist, opined last year that “the establishment” would try to undermine a radical Labour government. Whilst accepting it might sound a bit “tinfoil hat”, he abandoned this moment of self-awareness by saying Thatcher’s legacy lives on and, 30 years after she left government, civil servants still unquestioningly follow her doctrine.

They will, according to Jones, tell ministers “that their policies are unworkable and must be watered down or discarded” and, rather than blocking proposals, will “simply try to postpone them, hold never-ending reviews, call for limited trials – and then hope they are forgotten about”.

I don’t know about you, but that quote sounds more like Francis Maude than Leon Trotsky to me.

In Scotland, faced with an investigation by the Scottish Government over his conduct, former first minister Alex Salmond has turned his ire on to the permanent secretary Leslie Evans. As he well knows, she is duty bound to investigate under a policy that was approved by the SNP government and championed by the current first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

He has directed his criticism directly at the permanent secretary, even referring to the process for investigating him as the “Leslie Evans procedure”.

Cue an army of faithful trolls accusing Evans of being part of an establishment plot to undermine their great former leader. This gained such traction in the online nationalist world that The Herald even ran an article debunking the conspiracy that she was married to the former head of MI5 due to their shared surname. Instead they report he’s a music promoter and SNP activist.

I’m buying shares in tinfoil.

Part of the attraction of these conspiracy theories is that it gives the conspirator some credibility. Who doesn’t want their ideas to be so radical that the “establishment” will deploy its full portfolio of dirty tricks to stop them gaining Momentum? (See what I did there?)

Brexit, as I have discussed several times from these pages, has toxified political discourse in this country, including the almost daily attacks on the civil service from politicians, commentators and even serving ministers. Many previously rational individuals have lost the plot in pursuit of their ideological holy grail.

As I write this late on a Sunday evening, I’ve had to summon the forces of truth and justice through the medium of Twitter to respond to the normally sober Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Alpacas (Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee). Brexit Bernie has suggested Lord Ricketts, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, now a parliamentarian (the clue is in the title, Bernie) and of course private citizen, has no right to voice an opinion on the ramblings of a current minister. Brexit Bernie is not renowned for getting excitable and, while I know it was 9pm on a conference night, I’m guessing if the comment hadn’t been about Brexit, we wouldn’t have heard from him.

If you want a glimpse of where all of this can lead then look no further than the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry currently taking place in Northern Ireland, which was launched after a scheme for encouraging businesses to switch to renewable fuels had to be closed with a now estimated £700m overspend. Were it not for the all-consuming nature of Brexit, then this would, I wager, be front page news. 

The evidence unfolding paints a picture of the breakdown of integrity and propriety, led from the top of government. While the specifics surrounding the staggering loss of public money is bad enough, the political culture it exposes is worse. Conflicts of interest abound, with a number of special advisers personally benefitting from the scheme. Ministers routinely broke their own legislation on appointments and are refusing to take responsibility for the scheme or the conduct of their spads. That was just last week’s evidence.

While the politics of Northern Ireland is fairly unique and has quite probably contributed to the culture that is now being exposed, it does demonstrate what happens when the guiding principles of impartiality, integrity and professionalism are undermined by politicians.

These principles are under attack from left and right, nationalist and unionist. Maybe that suggests that the civil service is doing something right, but one lesson we must learn from the Northern Ireland debacle is just how fragile those principles are when cynically undermined for political gain.

Read the most recent articles written by Dave Penman - Q: What do lanyards have to do with delivering public services? A: Absolutely nothing


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