Nick Cohen

Boris Johnson wants a sycophantic civil service

Boris Johnson wants a sycophantic civil service
Text settings

This government may not be good for much but it knows how to manipulate language. Attacks on the ‘establishment’ are the cover it uses to smuggle ideologues and 'yes' men into the civil service.

We all hate ‘the establishment,’ don’t we? Even when, and especially if, we have never met a permanent secretary. The establishment, by definition, is hidebound and complacent, white, male, Oxbridge and biased. Although the awkward fact remains that you can only join the civil service by passing competitive examinations, that can quickly be dispensed with.

Since Lord (Michael) Young, father of the better-known Toby, wrote the The Rise of the Meritocracy in 1958, the attacks on competition and merit have become so commonplace a half-decent politics student could repeat them in her sleep. A society based on merit and intelligence is a fraud. It rewards the children of affluent parents who can buy them the best education. As for the poor, dozens of studies show that stress, anxiety and material deprivation hurts their children’s chances. Then there are the weird biases of British society that sees merit in Boris Johnson (who studied Classics at Oxford) and Dominic Cummings (History, Oxford) and allows them to mishandle the Covid pandemic with fatal consequences for tens of thousands of our citizens when leaders with backgrounds in science, assuming we have any, might have saved lives.

The notion of impartiality, meanwhile, has been under attack ever since Karl Marx declared in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, ‘the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. Judges and civil servants might think of themselves as independent but they were nothing more than the servants of the capitalist mode of production.

In our lifetime denunciations of unconscious sexism and institutional racism, have supplemented the denunciations of class bias. And as with the dissections of the flaws of meritocracy they have truth in them, and have also been repeated so often they have entered into the common consciousness of society.

When Dominic Cummings declared in a rambling blog post in January that he wanted ‘weirdos and misfits with odd skills’ to apply for jobs at No 10, many people who should have known better said he had a point. They did not smell a rat in his call for ‘genuine cognitive diversity’.

Too few twitched their nostrils when Michael Gove said at the weekend the government wanted senior civil servants who have ‘qualifications or expertise in mathematical, statistical and probability questions.’ It seemed a reasonable ambition. Admittedly, Gove is another arts graduate (English, Oxford) and along with Johnson and Cummings showed his contempt for truth by grifting his way to a referendum victory with the – how to put this politely? – complete falsehood that Turkey was about to join the EU and flood Britain with immigrants – Muslim immigrants at that.

However, it remains the case that an argument isn’t phoney just because a phoney makes it. Ever since CP Snow wrote his attack on the ‘Two Cultures,’ at about the same time that Young wrote his attack on meritocracy, the conventional wisdom has been that Britain has over-rewarded the humanities at the expense of science and engineering.

Our intellectual defences were down. We were ready to be played for fools.

Or as Theresa May put it in Commons today, if Gove was sincere in saying that this government wanted to promote people with proven expertise, ‘why is the new national security adviser a political appointee with no proven expertise in national security?’

Because David Frost is one of the gang is the most plausible of answers. As the Financial Times explained, Boris Johnson likes him because he is one of the few senior diplomats who thinks Brexit is a good idea. ‘They’ve been on the same intellectual journey over the EU,’ a Downing Street adviser told the paper. ‘There is a joint conviction in what they’re doing. David believes this is going to be a better country when we’ve left and we have a relationship of equals with the EU’.

The fact that Frost has no background in intelligence and security, a dangerous and essential area of statecraft, does not matter in the slightest. He’s Boris’s boy and loyalty to the boss trumps mere knowledge.

Other civil servants are not in the gang, and therefore they’re out. ‘Tory sources’ briefed the Telegraph in February that Johnson had a ‘shit list’ of mandarins he wants replaced because they are at odds with Tory ministers and advisers.

In contrast to Frost, the Telegraph reported that No 10 saw Sir Tom Scholar, the Treasury permanent secretary, as ‘offside’ on Brexit and his approach to the economy, and so his fate looks grim.

Tell hard truths about the economic consequences of leaving the single market and you’re finished. Bolster Boris’s boosterism and your career is made.

The lesson won’t be lost on civil servants who survive the purge. When the Conservatives forced out Sir Ivan Rogers, our ambassador to the EU in 2017, he wrote a fine open letter to his colleagues.

‘I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power. I hope that you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them.’

It will take brave men and women to speak truth to power now that power is making it clear that telling the truth is a sackable offence. The suffering of our already suffering country will increase as public servants turn into 'yes' men and women. Boris Johnson already governs with a cabinet of sycophants. He will soon have a civil service to match it.

As it has turned out, the criticisms of the two cultures, the supposed fiction of impartiality, the flaws of meritocracy and hidden, class, sexual and racial biases have not led to a fairer society, but have allowed the Conservative party to put ideological purity and fealty to the boss first. If you don’t bend the knee, you’re finished, as every judge, civil servant and journalist in every one-party state in the world already knows.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articlePolitics