Dave Penman: We’ve always defended civil service impartiality. Now it’s time to get on the front foot

Taking a stand for civil service impartiality is more important now than at any time in the past 100 years

The FDA celebrated its 100th anniversary earlier this year. Photo: FDA

By Dave Penman

10 Jul 2019

At the FDA we don’t half bang on about defending the impartiality of the civil service. It’s kind of our thing, our niche, our USP as they say. A quick scan of my Twitter account – a must for any aspiring public servant, BTW, with added dad jokes and Partick Thistle – and you’ll see that practically every other tweet is calling out some ill-founded nonsense or recycled tittle-tattle from a politician or “commentator”.

It’s our centenary year and we’ve been celebrating the moments throughout our history when we’ve been on the frontline of defending those principles, often in the midst of a political storm around individual civil servants such as Clive Ponting, Derek Lewis and Brodie Clark.

When I became general secretary of the FDA in 2012, my first big media day was defending the honours given to civil servants who were just doing what they’d been paid for, apparently. As a young trade unionist wanting to change the world, defending the honours system was not exactly the first hill I thought I would die on if I got to lead a trade union.


It was a time, however, when the value of public services was being questioned, as the coalition government’s austerity policies started to bite. As government held back pay, cut pension costs and even sought to publish the salary levels of individual senior civil servants, it was a narrative of cost, not value that was being played out and the honours issue was just a feature of that.

Every so often I’d be called upon to defend the civil service or the values of impartiality. Conservative ministers in particular, suspicious of the civil service after 13 years of Labour government, sought to blur the boundaries with extended ministerial offices and greater involvement in permanent secretary appointments, together with the usual anonymous briefings that are the modus operandi of some politicians.

In 2015, David Cameron’s now infamous tweet about “stability and strong government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband” was, I believe, a prophecy in reverse which is, of course, the worst kind of prophecy because you can’t even claim credit for it. The chaos that followed, improbably sown from the seeds of an election victory, have not only turned our political system on its head, but unleashed a barrage of attacks on individual civil servants and the fundamental principles of impartiality and integrity.

Too often, we at the FDA have found ourselves alone in defending the civil service and these values. Accusations of “remainer bias” were the go-to response when civil service advice, analysis or even just plain facts became inconvenient. We even had the spectacle of a government minister attacking government analysis from the despatch box, with No.10 unwilling to respond for fear of offending the all-powerful European Research Group. Unchallenged by ministers, these accusations have become the received wisdom of the One True Brexit camp. As PM, Theresa May bears prime responsibility for this failure and it will be her ultimate legacy to the civil service. 

It’s not just on the right of politics though. Who knew Mark Francois and Owen Jones would share a philosophy – both convinced that “elites” controlling government are out to thwart their radical agenda? Those around Corbyn, and of course the man himself, have little experience of government and a political perspective that is inherently distrustful of a Senior Civil Service that they view as part of the “establishment”. Like the ideological purists on the right, they cannot conceptualise how civil servants can serve governments of different colours equally loyally, because they would be incapable of doing so themselves. Even the softer left – frustrated at their lack of influence and guilt-ridden by their own responsibility in delivering the environment that created Brexit – rail against the SCS, who they believe should be leading the revolt against a cataclysmic Brexit.

Left and right are coalescing around a narrative that, left unchecked, could undermine the principles that have delivered effective government for over a century.

Not satisfied with just banging on about it, the FDA has teamed up with the Smith Institute to try to do something about it. We’ve asked those who deliver government, or study it, to give their personal perspective on why impartiality matters and needs to be defended. 

Contributors from across politics – including Nicola Sturgeon, Lord Heseltine, Carwyn Jones, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord McConnell – are joined by former officials Lord Kerslake, Sir David Normington and Sir Martin Donnelly. Jill Rutter from the IfG, Dan Corry, a former head of the No. 10 Delivery Unit, and Professor Colin Talbot add their perspectives from observing and working with ministers and civil servants.

We’re launching the report with an event at the House of Lords this month. We’ll then be taking it to those we seek to persuade, with debates at the main party conferences in the autumn.

We’ve always been on the frontline of defending impartiality. Now it’s time to get on the front foot.

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