Seen, but not heard: should ex-civil servants keep schtum on current affairs?

Former officials have an increasingly public role in national debate – is that always a good thing? Suzannah Brecknell explores how retired mandarins balance their duty to contribute to the public discourse with the self-enforced code of caution

By Suzannah Brecknell

15 Oct 2019

In September 1965, a group of civil servants filed into a room at the BBC’s Wood Lane site in West London, for a private screening of a film depicting the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain.

The War Game included scenes showing the army burning bodies and police shooting looters during a food riot. The officials were there to give a government view on whether the BBC should televise such a shocking programme.  

Why were they being involved in a decision which was in the gift of the politically independent BBC? They had been tipped off about the risks of broadcasting the film by the chairman of the BBC himself – the former cabinet secretary, Lord Normanbrook.

Normanbrook – formerly simply Norman Brook, before he was given his peerage – had written to his successor as cabinet secretary flagging concerns that the film might not only damage national morale but also bring about an undue rise in civil defence spending. The government agreed with his concerns and passed back a private message to that effect. After further consultations internally, the BBC chose not to televise the film until 1985. Brook’s quiet intervention to solicit official advice on this sensitive subject had saved the potential for a public row between government and his new employer.

Brook was not the only former top official who continued playing a role in policy discussions after retiring from government. Yet, while he was operating behind closed doors, his successors today have much more of a public profile. There is no record in Hansard of Brook ever speaking or voting in the Lords – nor of his two immediate successors doing so after they joined the upper chamber. But the five cabinet secretaries who now sit on the crossbenches certainly do speak and vote – Lord Armstrong, cabinet secretary from 1979-1987, attends the House almost every day.

The interventions of this select group in the Lords do not go unnoticed. Last year, for example, Lord Butler – cabinet secretary from 1988-1998 – opened his remarks during a debate about the EU Withdrawal Act by saying that the first clause repealing the 1972 EU Communities Act “strikes a dagger to my soul”. His phrase was repeated in various publications, and stuck in the mind of the pro-Brexit chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, Bernard Jenkin. 

"My pitch is simply for a serious debate about post-Brexit options, based on legal and economic realities, not on endless fantasies peddled in our political debate – primarily by people who privately acknowledge that the points made in my lectures are completely accurate."
Sir Ivan Rogers

Speaking at an FDA event on civil service impartiality over the summer, Jenkin repeated Butler’s phrase as evidence that there is a pro-EU bias in Whitehall. The Tory MP argued that when former officials speak critically about Brexit, it does nothing to quash the fear among Brexiteers that there is “a deep state that has beguiled the politicians about the relationship with the European Union and is now preventing us from getting out". 

While he acknowledged that the idea of a deep state is a “false narrative”, Jenkin said his colleagues' concern was "buttressed by something which is perfectly true: most civil servants subscribe to what was, until fairly recently, a perfectly orthodox consensus…that we were in the EU for good”. 

“We know this [is true],” he continued “because when senior civil servants leave the civil service, there are very few that espouse Brexit. The five living cabinet secretaries all voted against the EU Withdrawal Act in the House of Lords.” This, alongside “vociferous” criticisms from former permanent secretaries, “has advertised that there is a kind of house view in much of Whitehall, reflected in the government departments,” he concluded.

While Jenkin’s assertion that there is an anti-Brexit “house view” in the civil service is questionable – in fact, no one CSW has spoken to agrees with this – his underlying point was supported at the event by Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank. “Former civil servants haven't helped their successors with a lot of sounding off,” she said, before urging them to be “more reflective for the sake of people left in government”.

Do the interventions of former civil servants really cast aspersions on the officials they have left behind? Serving officials we spoke to about this did voice frustration over their predecessors’ commentary. But while some agreed that open criticism of Brexit may place pressure on relationships with some ministers, others reflected that these criticisms are neither the first nor the only factor which can complicate the official/political partnership. One told us that politicians losing trust in official advice has been a growing challenge across their career, not just since 2016.

Nevertheless, when some parts of the political class are keen to undermine “the establishment” in any way they can, it’s clear that the remarks of ex-civil servants could merely add fuel to the fire.

In May, former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell was criticised by Tory MPs and some commentators – including Rutter – when he published an article in the Times setting out the reasons why he would be voting for the Lib Dems in the European Elections. At that time, O’Donnell told CSW that, “As a member of the House of Lords it is important to take a view on crucial issues and be prepared to stand up for your views.”

He added: “I cannot see how this damages current civil servants: I have repeatedly and publicly voiced my support for remain and for a confirmatory referendum. On an issue of this magnitude about which I have a very strong view, it would be a dereliction of duty not to do anything.”

Speaking to CSW in response to Jenkin’s latest remarks about former officials, O’Donnell remains clear that he has a duty to speak out thanks to the position he has been given in the Lords. “The whole point of putting [former officials] there is to use their expertise,” he says. “The Lords has a role that involves scrutinising legislation, so it’s our duty as members of the Lords to get involved, to vote and make speeches.”

He acknowledges that former cabinet secretaries have a “self-enforced code” to exercise self-restraint about what they say – “you will not find us doing kiss and tell stories, and that sort of thing” – but this doesn’t mean they should be asked to abstain from giving any opinion.

“With very big issues like Brexit, to stand back and say ‘you can’t have a view on that because it might be interpreted as the view of the civil service’ is ridiculous, you shouldn’t have any truck with that,” he says.

Another former civil servant who has not been shy about speaking his mind on Brexit is Sir Simon Fraser, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office. Like O’Donnell, he argues that the enormity of the change set in train by Brexit places a duty on those with relevant experience to contribute to the national debate. “I’ve been invited several times to express views in public at [committees in] the Commons and House of Lords so clearly there’s a sense that [former officials] have a valuable contribution to make,” he tells CSW, adding:  “I did think very carefully about this. My views are not politically motivated, they are a reflection of what I consider to be my long experience of working on EU matters, business matters and on foreign policy.

“I just think the issue is so hugely important and the debate, frankly on both sides, has been quite shallow at times and sometimes misleading. I think it’s important for people like me to share our thinking and experience.” 

Fraser also speaks of exercising caution and self-restraint as he intervenes in the public debate, and is clear that, far from reflecting an FCO “house view”, he speaks for no-one other than himself, choosing not even to sign collective letters because he prefers to express his own views and analysis.

“I certainly don’t want to make life difficult for former colleagues,” he says, “because goodness knows life’s complicated enough for them. But I just concluded that participating in this debate was important and I’ve tried to do it in a responsible and clear way.  

Up for debate
Sir Ivan Rogers – former head of UKREP – has studiously not criticised Brexit itself in the various lectures and articles he has given since leaving government, instead choosing to critique the approach and discussion which has surrounded EU Exit. When speaking to CSW about Jenkin’s comments he, like Fraser, pointed to the paucity of public debate as his reason for speaking out.

“My pitch is simply for a serious debate about post-Brexit options, based on legal and economic realities, not on endless fantasies peddled in our political debate – primarily by people who privately acknowledge that the points made in my lectures are completely accurate,” he says.

That former officials still have private discussions with serving politicians and that those discussions are often constructive is echoed by Sir Philip Rycroft – until earlier this year the permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union. Rycroft was one of the most “exposed” officials, as he puts it, when it came to the challenge of building relationships with Brexiteer ministers. Yet he doesn’t agree with the suggestion that interventions from former officials can undermine those relationships. Most politicians, he tells CSW, are “big enough” to recognise that these are not the views of serving officials, and indeed ministers he worked with sometimes sought out former mandarins in order to discuss their analysis in person.

Rycroft did, however, express frustration with the often anonymous sniping from former officials about how DExEU was operating. “If you are going to offer criticism of how things are being done, that should be attributable, not anonymous,” he suggests. And Rycroft – himself now among those offering public contributions to the debate around Brexit – believes that “ex-civil servants should be cautious about becoming partisan in those debates”, or their expertise and analysis may be more easily ignored.
His caution is echoed Rutter who tells CSW that the reason she urges caution on former officials is that they have an important part to play in public debate. “I think it’s beneficial when ex-civil servants use their experience to highlight technical and procedural process,” she says. In addition, they can play their part in defending the civil service, and individual civil servants, against attacks from politicians. But, she says, when former officials give a clear opinion on Brexit or other partisan matters this undermines their ability to perform these roles.

“Sir Mark Sedwill is going to be under inordinate pressure as cabinet secretary in making sure that government conforms to the norms set out in the Cabinet Manual,” Rutter says. Former officials can help Sedwill, she continues, by being a public voice to explain what those norms are and why they matter, but they cannot do this once they become a partisan player.

“We don’t need more partisan voices, frankly, in this debate,” she says. “Former officials need to recognise that value add is to bring expertise rather than become a significant player in what is already a very polarised debate.”

Ian Beesley, who wrote the official history of cabinet secretaries, describes an arc towards ever-more public roles in the post-retirement careers of these most senior of government officials. For Beesley, the polarised nature of our current public debate is why the interventions of former mandarins are more controversial, but also more necessary. He suggests that even if Lord Normanbrook and his successors had contributed in the Lords, it is unlikely they would have garnered political attention.   

“The Lords was less important then,” he says, “the review process [it performs] has become a lot more important, and the country has become more fragmented, so we find that more fundamental debates take place in the Lords.”

“Brexit and our relationship with Europe is one of the two or three fundamental issues about the future of Britain,” he adds. Giving a view on this is “different from going public on a political policy matter like the abolition of private schools or a tax reform. When we are undergoing a shift like this, do we want everybody with knowledge and expertise to be known and to have declared their view? Yes, I believe we do.”


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