Alasdair Palmer

Theresa May is right to be angry – the civil service is now at risk

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Theresa May is back, and this time she’s angry. Not about Brexit or the Ulster Unionists, but about the politicisation of the civil service. This is not a matter that arouses ire in many people or even many politicians – but it should, because it is the main reason why Britain is governed better than Uzbekistan.

In Britain, we take for granted relatively uncorrupt and effective government, based on at least some degree of rational decision-making. Historically, this has been extremely rare, and even today, in many countries, it does not exist. But as economists often point out, it is – along with the rule of law, which is an aspect of uncorrupt government – the most important component in achieving and maintaining a country’s prosperity. The reason why so many people who live in developing countries want to leave them and move to places such as Britain is simple: the abysmal standards of government in their home countries. Corruption rots almost everything. Political power is the prime way that people get rich: the way to wealth is not by providing a service that others want to buy, but by stealing the country’s resources and extorting money from its citizens.

Corruption is about more than money: it also ensures that critical positions in a government are taken by people who are not competent to discharge the role they occupy. They are not able to make reasonable judgements and decisions because they do not understand the technicalities of the area they are responsible for. When corruption of that kind is multiplied across a society as a whole, nothing works properly because the officials do not know how to make anything work properly. That is not why they have been appointed. They have been appointed because they are friends of the boss and can be relied on to do his or her bidding. The country’s resources are wasted on enriching the greedy thugs who have managed to get their hands on the levers of power.

Britain suffered from widespread government corruption in the 18th century. The reforms initiated in the mid-19th century by Northcote and Trevelyan aimed to create an independent civil service in which jobs were distributed strictly on the proven capacity of the candidate to perform the tasks required. Those reforms were an essential part of the long process of removing the cancer of corruption from government in Britain.

Theresa May is angry because Boris Johnson appears to want to bring that cancer back. Not instantly or all at once, of course. She is concerned that he is starting the insidious process by which proven competence is replaced as the fundamental criterion for office by being a friend of the boss – sharing his view and being willing to do his bidding without raising any form of objection. Civil servants will – or at least they should – raise objections whenever they believe that a policy proposed by the boss is based on error, or on dogma, or just amounts to an unworkable idea. That is their value to us, the governed. It is also why politicians often hate them and wish to see them replaced with more pliable persons.

Having been Home Secretary for six years and prime minister for three, Theresa May is very well aware of the temptations, and the dangers, of appointing people to senior posts in government on the basis of their willingness to endorse the boss’s opinions. She was rigid with fury when she stood up in the House of Commons on Tuesday to ask Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, why the Prime Minister had appointed David Frost to the post of National Security Adviser. Mr Frost is a retired diplomat who has spent most of his time since leaving the Foreign Office working for the Scotch Whisky Association.

It was a particularly pertinent question because, as Mrs May pointed out, Mr Gove had himself recently insisted that 'we must be able to promote those with proven expertise'. Mr Frost has no proven expertise at all in the area of national security. But he is a good friend of the boss and can be relied upon to do as he is told. Boris Johnson knows this because when he was Foreign Secretary, he chose Mr Frost as his special adviser. When he became Prime Minister, Boris put David in charge of Brexit negotiations.

Mrs May’s anger was not assuaged by Gove’s feeble response, which confirmed the belief that Gove had no idea what he was talking about. He got Mr Frost’s name wrong, calling him 'Sir David Frost'. There was a Sir David Frost, but he has been dead for several years, and he knew even less about security matters than plain David. Mrs May shook her head in emphatic disagreement as Michael Gove tried to persuade her that having been a 'professional diplomat' was more than adequate preparation for advising the Prime Minister on global and domestic security matters – matters which are frequently very complicated and very technical. It is not obvious that knowing about whisky, or even about trade policy (Mr Frost’s speciality as a diplomat), confers the ability to determine accurately whether, say, the threat of terrorists obtaining a radiological bomb is more significant than terrorists getting hold of a chemical weapon that would distribute a new and deadly virus across London.

Mrs May’s anger – admirable, righteous and appropriate though it was – is in vain. Boris will not listen to her admonition, and he will continue to replace civil servants who question his wisdom with friends who do not. Sir Mark Sedwill is hardly an obstreperous or difficult personality. But he is honest and independent and will object when he believes a policy is wrong, misguided or impractical – as Theresa May herself knows. Sir Mark was permanent secretary at the Home Office when Mrs May was Home Secretary (and when I was writing speeches for her). But Sir Mark’s propensity to point out flaws with Boris’s plans was too much for Boris. Hence he has been replaced by David Frost as National Security Adviser. Another friend of Boris’s will no doubt take Sir Mark’s place as cabinet secretary in the autumn.

Mr Frost’s appointment is not going to turn Britain’s government into a version of Uzbekistan’s, or even into a version of America’s, where President Trump has been busy replacing independent and competent officials with useless cronies. But it is the beginning of a process which could end up spreading the cancer of corruption through British government. Theresa May is absolutely right: we had all better watch out.

Written byAlasdair Palmer

Alasdair Palmer is a former speechwriter for Theresa May and a columnist and leader writer at the Sunday Telegraph

Topics in this articlePolitics