Dave Penman: The public trusts civil servants in testing times

At a time of turmoil in government, the latest trust rankings for top professions provide a fillip for civil servants – and for trade union bosses

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By Dave Penman

13 Dec 2018

We’ve all got moments from our youth that are seared into our memory. One of mine is being on a school trip in 1979 to the Soldier’s Leap in Killiecrankie (which I’ve always thought sounds like a made-up Highland name) and asking my teacher who had won the general election. I was 12 years old and about to go to high school. As you’ve probably guessed, I was not your typical school child.

“Thatcher,” the teacher spat out, without hesitating to reveal her view of this PM’s victory. Over the next few years I saw mass unemployment and the destruction of a lot of the heavy industry that had built Scotland’s reputation over centuries. It was of course only accelerating an already almost unstoppable decline, but the headlines always seemed to be filled with the names of steel mills or coal mines that were being closed, and with them communities destroyed. I witnessed the miners’ strike – if not first-hand, then very close to it. My uncle was a miner and the area I grew up in had been surrounded by mines either already closed or on the brink.


My music and my politics were filled with the anger of those times. I have vivid memories of sneaking in underage to a club in Glasgow called Nightmoves to see Billy Bragg and the Redskins at the height of the dispute. The gig was a combination of the former’s clever passionate lyrics and latter’s thumping basslines. Like all good music, it felt like it articulated exactly how I felt: anger at what was happening around me.

So when people say politics have never felt so polarised, I often think “sorry millennial snowflake, you’ve just not lived long enough”.

If politics is not more divisive, are we at least more cynical, as many often suggest? Here, at least, there is evidence to analyse. The annual Ipsos-Mori Veracity Index has been running since I was pogoing to the Redskins. It measures trust in key professions, mainly around whether they can be trusted to tell to tell the truth.

Politicians have never been trusted, it seems. Their score has remained almost constant and was 17% in 2017. The latest survey was carried out just before the bullying and harassment scandal erupted in Westminster, so Ipsos-Mori carried out a fresh wave of the survey to see if it had had any impact. Their conclusion was that “even the recent harassment scandals at Westminster seemed to make little difference to low ratings in politicians as a class – either because it has already hit a floor, or because the public felt it reflected other aspects of trust such as moral behaviour more than their ability to tell the truth”. Interesting.

“With the political turmoil unfolding around them, fast streamers are expected by the country to be part of the solution. Quite the burden in the current climate”

Civil servants fare much better. Their profession is consistently on the rise in this Trust Top of the Pops, up 37 percentage points since 1983 at 62%. Despite everything that’s been thrown at the civil service over the last few years, the data shows the public inherently trust it as a profession.

I was talking about this to a group of fast streamers recently, in the ostentatious surroundings of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Map Room. I love talking to fast streamers: they’re some of the most talented graduates in the country and they have chosen public service. They’re bursting with energy and enthusiasm and are utterly committed to their work. With the political turmoil unfolding around them, they are expected by the country to be part of the solution. Whatever choices are ultimately made by politicians, fast streamers will be expected to make the best of it. Quite the burden in the current climate.

They do not shirk from this. They don’t resign when the going gets tough and leave it to others to sort out, even when most of that tough going is of those others’ making. They came into public service to serve governments of different colours, provide the best advice they can and then deliver whatever that government decides to the best of their ability. They came in with their eyes open and are here for the duration. Fast streamers are not unique in this, though: this is what it is to be a civil servant and ultimately why the public continue to trust them.

What about trade union officials? They’re now at 45%, up 27 points since 1983. So as the general secretary of a civil service trade union that gives me a chart-topping net trust factor of 107%: the new nation’s favourite.

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