Christopher Meyer

The civil service definition of bullying has changed over the years

The civil service definition of bullying has changed over the years
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In my 37 years in the Diplomatic Service, I neither witnessed nor experienced what I considered to be bullying. 

There were senior officials who took regular pleasure in finding fault with a cutting remark. Others swore like troopers. I was the speechwriter to three Foreign Secretaries. One of them told me, with a sardonic laugh, that my latest draft was 'as useful as a dead fish'. 

But never in a month of Sundays did I think any of this to be bullying. The Foreign Office had exacting standards and you expected to be held to them. Still less was it grounds for complaint if the minister rejected your advice, even with contumely. 

It was made very clear that once the minister had taken a decision, it was your duty to implement it to the best of your abilities. If that stuck too much in the craw, you resigned or got a transfer.

Things got muddied in the Noughties. An edict emerged from Whitehall decreeing that complaints of bullying should be assumed to be well-founded. In other words, the innocence - not the guilt - of the accused would have to be proved in any investigation, thus turning on its head a thousand years of English justice. 'It’s best practice', said the FCO.

The inevitable happened. Many of those admonished for poor performance took shelter under an accusation of bullying. But one person’s bullying is another’s brisk reprimand. There is no legal definition of bullying. The whole area is a bog of subjectivism and Priti Patel will have to prove her innocence in an age when taking offence has become as contagious as coronavirus.

I remember my mother taking me as a small boy to a film version of the 19th century novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Seared on my memory is the scene where poor Tom is roasted in front of a fire by the dastardly older boy, Flashman (who was to become the hero of George MacDonald Fraser’s marvellous novels).

Now that’s what I call bullying.