Stephen Daisley

Who governs Britain? Not ministers, it seems

Who governs Britain? Not ministers, it seems
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Who governs Britain? It’s a dangerous question, as Ted Heath learned half a century ago. But while he was concerned with untrammelled unions, ministers today must contend with another unelected cadre calling the shots. The difference is that now, like in so many horror movies, the calls are coming from inside the house. 

The Telegraph reports that the Ministry of Justice has appointed a ‘transgender employee support officer’. That in itself is hardly surprising. What does stand out is the reason for the appointment.

According to an email seen by the Telegraph, prison service director general Phil Copple wrote to staff last Friday to say:

Following the decision last year for the MoJ to not renew its membership with the Stonewall diversity scheme and wider issues in the press, MoJ transgender staff are feeling increasingly vulnerable.

The decision he refers to was taken by former justice secretary Robert Buckland, who withdrew the department from a ‘diversity champions’ scheme run by trans rights charity Stonewall. The MoJ was reportedly paying £3,500 to be listed on the rankings of LGBT-friendly employers but had apparently become concerned by the role played by radical gender ideology in Stonewall’s training. 

On its own, the email is eyebrow-raising but it is even more so given the venomous culture war over gender self-identification, an ideology embraced by governmental, public sector, corporate and academic elites which says that a man who believes himself to be a woman is a woman because he says so (and vice versa). Failure to affirm him in his belief is bigoted, transphobic and contributes to crimes against and suicide by transgender people. 

Given the broader political context, it is difficult to regard the email as anything other than an act of defiance against a ministerial decision of which civil servants apparently disapprove. Explicitly linking a policy choice to a purported situation where ‘staff are feeling increasingly vulnerable’ is dubious as it is but it is the sort of charge you would have thought might come from the Labour benches or one of the self-ID enthusiasts on the Tory backbenches. 

The Telegraph quotes an insider describing the latest salvo as ‘a workaround in defiance of the clear instruction to ditch Stonewall trans ideology’ and ‘another example of woke senior public servants in the prison and probation service subverting ministerial authority when it suits them’. HM Prison and Probation Service tells the paper: ‘An existing member of staff has taken on this additional, unpaid responsibility to be a point of contact for transgender employees seeking information and support.’

The sort of people who vote Tory, pay membership subs, deliver leaflets at election time or are proponents of conservative policies have long viewed civil servants with suspicion, seeing them as part of a progressive blob that hinders Tory minsters in their pursuit of conservative outcomes. This thesis greatly overestimates how many ministers are after conservative outcomes. As Niall Gooch has observed from a conservative standpoint — and I from a liberal one — this Tory government hasn’t done much that’s Tory. (I get the sense Niall is less happy about that than I am.) 

Even so, events at the MoJ chime with gripes about civil servants elsewhere in government. There is a perception that it does not matter what individual ministers or the government wants to do. Civil servants are the gatekeepers of the exercise of governmental power and they manage to have at least as much say as ministers in how and to what effect it is exercised. 

Where ministers are out-of-step with the latest political or cultural fads, it is seemingly not their departments that must come round to their way of thinking. Perhaps this is only to be expected. Every minister knows the civil servants were there years before they arrived and will still be there years after they’ve been reshuffled, sacked or defeated at the ballot box. The civil service is the government and ministers merely a seasonally changing brand.