The Queen's portrait row at BEIS reminds us patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel

As Kwasi Kwarteng refuses to quash a fake news story, the PM's 18th century namesake has some useful lessons for members of the current cabinet
Photo: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy Stock Photo

By Dave Penman

18 Feb 2022

It’s not often I quote Johnson, but sometimes it just seems apposite. Not that Johnson of, course, this one: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

As is so often the case with historical quotes, there is much debate as to its meaning. Was old Sam J denouncing all patriotism? James Boswell, a diarist at the time, said: “But let it be considered that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.”

Which brings me swiftly to Kwasi Kwarteng, or to be more accurate, “allies” of the secretary of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy  – normally code for special advisers, special friends or anyone close enough to the minister to convince a journalist they have the minister’s ear and/or are essentially representing his/her views. All, of course, anonymous and deniable by the minister. More on that later.

New Year’s Day is usually a slow news day and inevitably some stories are filed, shall we say, “in advance”. Even by those standards, the story published in the Telegraph was a doozy. Civil servants were accused of, and I quote, “disrespecting the Queen after they refused to rehang a large portrait of the monarch in their Whitehall headquarters”.

The story went on to explain that post refurbishment, civil servants refused to rehang a picture of the Queen and, when pressed, hung a teeny tiny one instead, the size of a “postage stamp” according to one member of the business secretary’s team.

Not content with that egregious act of monarch dissing, the memorial plaque commemorating officials from the former Ministry of Power who died during the second world war had been “consigned to the basement”.

“I think some of my colleagues forget we work for Her Majesty’s Government,” an official told the Telegraph, in a cutting jibe aimed at the republican, soya-latte loving, wokerati civil servants who are responsible for these acts.

“Fake news stories accusing civil servants of disrespecting the Queen and the war dead have not gone down well ”

All good stuff to fill the pages on 1 January. Except, of course, it isn’t true. Not only is it not true, the truth actually tells a different story, if the Telegraph had cared to ask, which they didn’t. Fact-checking is apparently soooo 2021.

The portrait of the monarch was moved during refurbishment, then put back where it originally hung. End of. Except, of course, that some special advisers got a bit jealous after a visit to the Home Office where a much larger portrait hangs (of course it does). Unfortunately, there was no room for the Priti large one they desired so, instead, they fabricated this story in what I can only assume is considered the next best thing, a civil service-bashing article. High five!

What about the remembrance plaque, I hear you ask? That was moved: five points for accuracy there, Telegraph. Except it was moved to provide greater access to the Remembrance Day memorial and allow it to be streamed across the department. As Dumbledore would say, minus 10 points to Slytherin.

As you can imagine, fake news stories accusing them of disrespecting the Queen and the war dead have not gone down well with civil servants in BEIS. Ever more so when those that throw these anonymous accusations around view the monarch and those who gave their lives for our country as nothing more than convenient tools to get a cheap headline.

Now you would think that the business secretary might be interested to know that his “allies” are spreading such malicious lies about his loyal civil servants. So, I wrote to him, pointing this out and offering him the chance to clear matters up. Answer was there none. Indeed, not only did he refuse to answer my letter, but felt that saying absolutely nothing about the matter was the best way to show his support for his officials. I kid you not. I’m sure the civil servants in BEIS are feeling that love as I type.

Of course, Kwasi Kwarteng knows where this story came from. The civil servants know where this story came from. But as ever, the anonymous, cowardly “allies” source allows the pretence that this is all a mystery not worthy of comment. You would have thought that on this occasion, given the despicable nature of this story, it might just have shamed him in to calling it out. Think again.

So, we’re left with Johnson’s quote – Samuel, of course – and Boswell’s interpretation “that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest”.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA

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