Alex Massie

Suffer the Poor Civil Servants

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This hand-wringing, bed-wetting piece of Pootery is probably the funniest thing the Observer has printed in years. Written by a "senior civil servant" one could be forgiven for thinking that the End Times are upon us. In reality, of course, the government has decided to spend just £700bn or so in the final year of this parliament. Disaster!

Speaking last week to junior civil servants, I found it impossible to muster the usual energy and excitement. I normally ignite the groups with a vision of our higher purpose and entrance them with the dream of a long bright career. Sadly my dream is dead. I don't know what we are doing or why we are doing it. I can't escape the feeling that all our dynamism and creativity – so long targeted at the problems in our society – has been turned inward. Vast systems have been built to freeze spending and implement cuts. They are sucking everyone in. This is a turning point in our island history.

Oh noes! Apparenlty the country has endured - but survived! - "perhaps the most dangerous three weeks for many years."

I would like to say that our best brains are working flat out to make all this happen, that our greatest minds are leading this effort. Instead there is widespread distraction. There is a people-power revolution – but not of the kind the prime minister intended.

At the very highest levels, some of the most experienced officials are packing their bags. Giddy with the glimpse of freedom, they are happily waving through these gigantic plans. Beneath them are scores of officials who would like to muster the fight to critique and improve them. Instead they are paralysed by the imperative to let the new regime make its own mistakes – to avoid being the no men. They are also desperately searching for jobs, meeting contacts and holding meetings to secure new employment by the autumn. Anything to get out by the time things get really nasty. Beneath them are many more who have no hope of getting out, but – bitter and disillusioned by the behaviour of their superiors – are unable to turn things around.

I must say that this seems something of an indictment of the civil service and their professionalism. The best civil service in the world, civil servants tell us, and people whose professionalism is, as they always put it, smooth and consummate in equal measure. Except when it's not convenient?

The coalition is like an old house. Summer masks all manner of problems. The hot weather makes many things more pleasant. But when autumn arrives, the wind and rain will ruthlessly expose the gaps and cracks.

You might ask why I am writing this diary. Isn't it the role of the civil servant to serve in obedient silence?

I am writing because something fundamental has changed in our political system. The process may have started under the previous government, but has accelerated. The civil service is being eroded by a pungent acid that will soon dissolve the foundations of our politics. The solid oak beams of state are being cut to pieces and the roof will come crashing down. This process is moving fast. A brain drain has begun and our brightest graduates have got the message that this is not a good place to be. The implications will not be felt for some time, but the results will be devastating to our society and our economy. It is still not too late. It can be reversed, but we all need to be open about what is happening and speak up for the civil servants who will otherwise suffer in silence.

If this is really what senior civil servants think then, yup, the sooner the house comes crashing down the better. Meanwhile, who will think of the poor civil servants and, one assumes, their childrend and grandchildren? Not this barbarous government!

Oh, and by "something fundamental has changed in our political system" I think the author means just this: the wrong people are in government. Once upon a time this kind of nonsense might have been printed by the Telegraph. It's one measure of the times that it's now in the Observer. That doesn't prevent it from being the most terrible and abject poppycock. If the Observer's correspondent ain't feeling up to the job perhaps he might resign and give someone else a chance?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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