‘An iconoclastic government’: former DEXEU chief Philip Rycroft on threats to the UK and its democracy

By on 16/10/2020
Philip Rycroft, photographed in the Cabinet Office during his time at DEXEU. (Image courtesy of the FDA/Nicklas Hallen).

Philip Rycroft ran both the UK’s Brexit department, and Whitehall’s relations with the devolved governments. Now the former permanent secretary is speaking out: the Johnson government, he says, is ‘challenging the democratic basis of our system’ and boosting support for Scottish independence. Interview by Matt Ross

“There is no tradition at the UK government level of thinking in a systematic, coherent way about its relationship with the regional and the local,” says Philip Rycroft. Instead, successive governments “rearrange the deckchairs, but none of that persists for terribly long. The next government comes in, rips it up and starts again.” As a result, the “map of local responsibilities is almost completely incoherent” – with a range of local authority structures living awkwardly alongside a mismatching set of bodies overseeing policing, health and other services. “The whole thing is a mess,” he comments.

In part, Rycroft believes, this chaotic picture reflects a longstanding cultural problem within Whitehall – which, mistrusting local actors, avoids wholehearted devolution while habitually extending its own powers. “The first instinct is: ‘We know best, we’ll do it’, without necessarily thinking about whether they’ve got the tools or capability to do it,” he says. And this is particularly true of Boris Johnson’s year-old Conservative administration: “I would have this government down as instinctively a centralising government.”

That applies within central government: seizing control of special advisers and communications teams across government, “Number 10 is sucking power up from the rest of Whitehall.” It applies in the centre’s treatment of local actors: Johnson’s planning reforms, Rycroft notes, empower Whitehall while “removing the discretion from local authorities over large parts of what they do”. And it’s evident in the “so-called muscular or assertive unionism” shaping its attitude to the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: “A far more aggressive approach is being taken because, I think, there is a resentment of the powers that the devolved governments hold, and the way those powers have been exercised,” he argues.

The House of Commons, EU negotiators and the UK’s own Cabinet secretary have also felt that aggression. “This government is an iconoclastic government,” comments Rycroft. “It’s not afraid of taking on the great institutions of state. And there’s nothing wrong with a government being challenging, but many of these institutions are actually the buttresses of our democracy and our democratic process. And if you start undermining all of those serially, you get to a point when you are challenging the democratic basis of our system.”

Plain speaking

It’s highly unusual for a former permanent secretary to use this kind of language – but these are highly unusual times, and Rycroft is not alone. Earlier this month, former president of the Supreme Court Lord Neuberger warned that aspects of the government’s Internal Market Bill (IMB) represent “a very slippery slope” towards “tyranny”. And former PM Theresa May has told ministers that they’re “acting recklessly and irresponsibly” over the Bill, which has also been criticised by ardent Brexiteers in Parliament – including Lord Howard, Lord Lamont and Bernard Jenkin. Rycroft has his own concerns about the IMB – detailed in a GGF analysis earlier this month – but his fears about the government’s behaviour are much broader, in part reflecting his long experience managing the fraught relationship between the UK government and its counterparts in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

Rycroft’s last job before retirement was that of permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU): joining the department in 2016, he held the top job from October 2017 to March 2019. But his career began at the UK government’s Scottish Office, and he spent much of the early 2000s working for the Scottish Government. Returning to the UK civil service, he ran the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office during the Coalition. And from 2015, he was responsible for constitutional and devolution issues as head of the Cabinet Office’s UK Governance Group.

His task in this role – which he took with him into DEXEU – was “to work with colleagues across Whitehall, to improve their understanding of devolution and how to build constructive relationships with the devolved governments.” It was “uphill work at times,” he recalls, but “Whitehall getting it right when it’s pursuing policies that impact on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is hugely important to the future of the UK. So it was a necessary and worthwhile challenge, and we were making progress.”

The centre cannot hold

Then came Brexit – which generated tensions around both the UK’s Brexit goals, and the way in which powers returning from the EU should be distributed between the nations’ capitals. These issues “took the politics of Brexit deep down into the administrative arrangements across whole swathes of Whitehall, which made building good relationships that much harder,” Rycroft comments.

The pandemic could have enabled UK leaders to rebuild collaboration, he believes: “A pandemic is a common threat, where all parts of the UK have benefitted from the long pockets of the Treasury.” Indeed, “in the early days, the devolved first ministers were invited to Cobra [civil contingencies committee] meetings and so on. But one got the sense that there wasn’t a concerted effort at the Whitehall end to keep them in the tent.”

There is, Rycroft believes, a deep-rooted problem in the way Johnson’s government has treated the devolved governments: retaining good working relationships “requires a degree of respect shown”, he says, “accepting that they have legitimate views; that there will be some differences in the way that things are handled across different parts of the UK.” Absent that respect, relationships have continued to deteriorate. “Far from being a uniting crisis that has united the four governments in a common approach, it has become one in which the devolved governments have been able to portray themselves as acting outside the frame of the UK government,” he says ruefully. “It has become divisive.”

Doing a local task nationally

The same overbearing, centralising attitude is visible, Rycroft believes, in the Johnson government’s handling of COVID-19 within England. In 2013 the Conservative-led government passed responsibility for public health to local authorities, which control dedicated staff, policies and infrastructure. Yet when the pandemic struck, the government sidelined councils and commissioned a national, call centre-based contact tracing operation. Similarly, it retained a tight grip on testing – creating a new national system that sits awkwardly alongside the NHS’s labs – and launched a doomed attempt to build a contact-tracing app that would hold all the data centrally.

(Image courtesy of the FDA/Nicklas Hallen)

“The whole COVID episode has been marked by centralisation; distrust of the devolved administrations; not involving the metropolitan mayors,” Rycroft comments. “In all of the big systems – test and trace, PPE procurements and so on – the attempt has been made to manage that, as far as possible, from central entities rather than devolving those decisions”. Yet the countries with the best performance on COVID-19, he notes – citing Germany, Australia and South Korea – have seen “more devolution of power and responsibility and obligations to the local level.”

A pandemic is a national crisis, he adds, but addressing it “needs that local responsiveness.” Local authorities “know their patch. And if the tools and responsibility were handed over to them, the chances are that they would make a better fist of it than a national agency that’s seeking to cover the whole of the territory – which is a really, really difficult thing to do.”

Structural weaknesses

Indeed, in Rycroft’s view, Number 10 – which has made many of the key decisions – is fundamentally ill-equipped to handle fast-moving, nationwide delivery challenges like those posed by COVID-19. “The centre of the UK government, broadly speaking, operates like a court,” he explains. “It’s designed to manage messaging, not to deliver big policy goals; it’s just not structured like that. It doesn’t have folk at the centre who have that kind of experience.”

When the crisis arrived, he believes, Number 10 tried to take control “without understanding the limits of their own capability.” And as vast areas of the country slip into regional lockdowns, it’s clear that the government’s approach has not been effective: “In a crisis like this, those weaknesses were revealed,” says Rycroft.

Meanwhile, the Johnson government is developing plans to reform the civil service. “No civil service can stand still: the world is constantly changing around us and the civil service needs to adapt,” comments Rycroft, calling for continued progress on agendas such as digital transformation. In particular, the civil service “has been slow to recognise a weakness on the question of diversity – not just on gender and ethnicity and disability, but also in terms of diversity of thought, of background”: he welcomes the government’s desire to shift more policymakers out of Whitehall and into the regions, giving them a “broader understanding of the country that they’re working in.”

Threat to impartiality

But Rycroft is concerned about the government’s intentions – and particularly those of the PM’s lead adviser, Dominic Cummings. Since Cummings returned to government with Johnson last year, a steady stream of permanent secretaries have left: there have been allegations of ministerial bullying, and of the abandonment of the principle of ministerial responsibility – with civil servants sacked over errors that would previously have cost a minister’s job. Cummings has long promoted changes to the way in which civil service leaders are appointed and managed, and Rycroft clearly worries that appointments may become politicised.

The principle of “impartiality, and the ability of civil servants to give advice to ministers without fear or favour” are “enormously valuable: that integrity and impartiality should be protected at all costs,” he says. “People need to think very, very carefully before seeking to alter that. And I think it is incumbent on those who wish to see a different sort of civil service to justify in advance why their vision will deliver a better outcome for the people of the United Kingdom.”

The government’s approach to international law, Parliament, national and local authorities, and the civil service are, says Rycroft, “part of the same pattern. It’s an impatience with the structures of government; with the conventions of government. And it’s a willingness to break things. And the big question is: why? What is this destructiveness seeking to achieve? We just don’t know that yet. So there’s lots of talk of reforming the civil service. There’s lots of talk about reform of the court system and the Supreme Court, and so on. To what end?”

Destructive and ineffective

“One might be a little bit more forgiving of some of this if it looked as though the outcomes that were being achieved were far superior to what has been achieved by previous governments,” he adds archly, but “this does not give the impression of being a government that is super-competent.” On key issues such as coronavirus, Number 10’s approach is not working well: “They have been in power for well over a year. The proof of the effectiveness of this philosophy of government ought to be in the delivery of better outcomes. And we’re just not seeing those.”

It is in the governing party’s interests, Rycroft argues, that the structures and conventions of government endure. “If this civil service is trashed, then there’s no simple alternative waiting in the wings to come in and take over,” he warns. And before breaking all the rules, the Johnson administration should remember that no government lasts forever. “It’s not many months ago that we had a radically left-wing leader of the Labour party,” he notes. “A right-leaning government that trashes the institutions of state leaves the state trashed for an incoming left-leaning government. And if that government itself chose to move in a radical direction, we would not have the normal checks and balances there because they’d have been destroyed by the previous government. The lack of a historical perspective on this is slightly alarming.”

Indeed, the Conservative party appears to have forgotten even its own history. Recalling the party’s long connection with the philosophy of 18th century politician Edmund Burke, Rycroft calls on “the fine Burkian tradition of respect for the institutions of state; respect for continuity in the story of a country: this is about as far as you can get from that!” The current administration’s behaviour, he adds, is “very, very un-Conservative… And I find it extraordinary that the Conservative Party as a whole is watching this happen without asserting itself.”

Parliamentary protection?

The civil service can warn ministers when they may be at risk of breaking the law, says Rycroft. And when elected leaders ignore that advice – as they did with the Internal Market Bill – officials can quit: “Clearly, at least one civil servant found that too much to bear and took the option of resigning,” he notes. “And Jonathan Jones is the government’s key legal adviser! But that’s quite a big step to take for any individual.”

(Image courtesy of the FDA/Nicklas Hallen)

The job of holding the government to account, though, falls to Parliament. “I think parliamentarians have a duty to the country to step back a little bit and to look at what the cumulative impact is,” says Rycroft. “If you add all of these things up, it does sum to a worrying trend. I think the vast majority of ministers and backbenchers would be horrified at the thought that this was taking the UK in a direction that was seriously weakening the structure of our democracy. But so much has happened over the last few months and it is, I think, at least worth worrying about that trend.”

“And I think there are some, particularly close to the prime minister, who are careless around those traditions,” he adds. “I don’t think they’re setting out in the morning to undermine democracy, but they’re careless around the structures that support democracy. That’s not where their attention is.”

What happens if we continue on our current path? One risk, he replies, “is that the UK ceases to exist”: polling in Scotland and Wales suggests that “coronavirus has driven more people to think that the right outcome of all of this is independence.” Ironically, it seems that the experience of being roped to UK policy on Brexit – the painful untangling of one set of shared sovereignties – has led Scots to conclude they should pick apart a far older and deeper union.

Brexit as a Scexit warning

Yet the UK’s EU membership, Rycroft notes, is just four decades old and largely confined to the economic space – “and we are seeing just how complex it is to unravel that. When you look at a 300-year-old union… where the institutions of state, our cultural life, our defence and security systems are so integrated, seeking to disentangle all of that is an enormous, complex, and indeed wrenching challenge.” It would be particularly wrenching for Rycroft: a Yorkshireman who, for over 30 years, has lived north of the border with his Scottish wife. His two sons consider themselves Scottish and British, he says, and “I don’t want them to have to make a choice across those identities.”

To preserve the union and build more effective public services, Rycroft argues, people need to “think systematically” about which level of government is best suited to managing each issue. That means you promote “proper devolution of power and responsibility to the appropriate level in England, as well as to the devolved parts of the UK. And you build up political authority closer to where it is exercised in the regions or the localities.”

He is not optimistic. “You could build the perfect model – but politically it’s not going to happen; not with this government,” he comments. “Will that existential threat prompt a rethinking of… the way in which the UK is constructed? I see no signs of that happening. But if the alternative is the break-up of the UK, and this community of nations drifting apart, then maybe it’s time we thought about whether a more thoroughgoing review of our constitutional arrangements… is actually necessary.”

Meanwhile, Rycroft urges the government to take greater care of our democracy. “If you undermine the courts; if you undermine the ability of the BBC and others to challenge the government in public; if you weaken Parliament; if you weaken the civil service,” he warns, then this in turn damages the “institutional infrastructure of the state that supports the way that our democracy functions.”

And in the UK, that institutional infrastructure depends on elected leaders’ willingness to follow the unwritten rules of governance: if a determined prime minister with a large majority wants to act in ways that undermine the country’s democracy, there’s little to stop them from doing so. “We’re almost unique in the democratic world in not having a written constitution, so much of our system depends on precedent and on convention,” Rycroft concludes. “And if you start challenging that, we don’t have the backstop of a written constitution which says: ‘So far, and no further.’

Philip Rycroft: five thoughts for better government

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions on camera – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped your or your colleagues?

“When I worked in the Scottish Government about 10 years ago, we drew a lot of inspiration from something called Virginia performs, which is the way the state of Virginia manages public services in order to improve outcomes and the connectivity between those services. And that’s translated in the Scottish context into something called Scotland Performs, which is a radically different approach both to the management of public services in Scotland, and to the presentation of those services to the public. It’s still going on. But we drew that inspiration very directly from what we saw happening in Virginia in particular, but also in other parts of the world.”

Are there any projects or innovations from this country – the UK or Scotland – that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

“When I was responsible for innovation policy in the Cabinet Office in Whitehall and working quite closely with the OECD, one of the things that I was promoting from the UK experience was the What Works network. This is the centres that work with practitioners, with folk in the police force, with teachers, with folk in the health service, to learn from them the things that make the biggest difference, and then to take those examples, to test them and, if they prove successful, to disseminate them. So the What Works centres, working with practitioners to improve services delivered to the citizen, I think is a great innovation in government. And lots of folk could learn usefully from that.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“This appreciation of how you can learn from a broader context needs to be built into the way that we train and develop senior officials – people coming into the civil service, and then throughout their career – for people to have a broad outlook on where they draw their inspiration from; where they draw their lessons from. It should be marbled into the experience of being a civil servant.

“And one other thing we can all do more of is to use those sources of knowledge and understanding about the way that different systems operate. That comes together, for example, through the OECD, where there is a wealth of material and a wealth of connectivity that brings people together; as, indeed, Global Government Forum can as well. So being together with civil servants from other parts of the world, and learning from them, is hugely important.”

Okay, defining your field as you choose, what are the biggest global challenges within your field?

“As you intimated, I don’t really have a field now, because I’m an ex-civil servant! One of the things I’m really interested in, driven by my experience in government in the UK and where the government’s at at the moment, is the whole question of identity and how that plays in political space. And I think the biggest issue – an age-old issue, but it’s constantly mutating as the world changes around us – is: how can that personal affiliation that we feel for a country, for a nation, for city, for a region, be used to work for the common good in a way that doesn’t lead to dissolution; descend to separation?

“That’s been a challenge that’s been around forever. But it takes on new forms as the world changes around us, and is a particular issue for the UK right now – and one that was absolutely central to the work I did in government, working on devolution within the UK, understanding the relationships between the different parts of the UK, but also, of course, around Brexit.”

What’s your favorite book?

“Now that is an impossible question. The way I always answer that it is that it’s the book I happen to be reading at the moment. “So the book I happen to be reading at the moment is Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, which I’ve never read before. I’ve read the other novels, but not that one. And it’s making me very happy, because she grew up and lived in a part of the world which is very close to my home in the West Riding of Yorkshire. And she writes about a time which is my favorite period of history – I’m a historian by trade – which is the early 19th century in the UK. It’s not her greatest novel, people would say, but because of those reasons – the geography of it and time of it – and because she writes beautifully, I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public sector management, policymaking and service delivery. He was the editor of Civil Service World 2008-14, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of Regeneration & Renewal 2002-08, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with communications consultancy, marketing and journalism work for publishers, public sector unions and private sector suppliers to government.

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