UK civil service threatened by ‘ideological evangelists’ on both left and right, warns union chief

By on 13/05/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Dave Penman, general secretary, FDA Union (Image courtesy FDA Union).

The UK’s civil service and its traditions of “impartiality, integrity and professionalism” are under attack from “ideological evangelists” within both main political parties, the head of the country’s union for civil service managers has said.

Speaking at the FDA union’s Annual Delegate Conference in London on Thursday, general secretary Dave Penman complained about “sustained attacks, from the left and right, on the very principles that are the foundations of our civil service”.

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 election as Labour leader and the Brexiteers’ 2016 rise in the governing Tory party, “politics have become more polarised,” said Penman. “The two main parties are now dominated by those more ideologically driven on both left and right.”

Among both government ministers and Corbyn’s allies, he added, some people “don’t welcome facts unless they fit their narrative. They don’t welcome truth being spoken to power because they have an unshakeable belief in only one truth.”

The result, he argued, is “right and left coalescing around an agenda that undermines the very fabric of an impartial civil service. They cannot understand how, regardless of background or political belief, a civil servant can serve a government or advance a policy they do not support – they cannot understand it because they are incapable of acting this way.”

Attacks from the Right

The Brexit wing of the Tory party, Penman continued, have reacted to government forecasts and analyses pointing out the potential damage caused by Brexit by shooting the messenger. “We have seen the systematic and deliberate undermining of the civil service by those who are troubled by the challenging facts around our exit from the EU,” he said. “They have sought to paint the civil service as a Remainer resistance movement, undermining the will of the people. There has been a constant drip feed of stories as fantastical as the targeting of Leave donors for tax liabilities to the digging-up of essays written by civil servants at university.

“All are deliberate, a constant whispering in the ear of the public that the civil service is about to betray the will of the people.”

Penman highlighted the case of Steve Baker, a government minister who told the House of Commons that the leak of a government analysis of the likely outcomes of Brexit was “an attempt to undermine our exit from the EU.”

“Number 10 even appeared to confirm he was speaking for the government, as they couldn’t be seen to be criticising him,” the FDA chief added.

Suspicion on the Left

Meanwhile, he argued, within Corbyn’s Labour Party “the civil service is being painted as part of the establishment conspiracy,” with allies of the leader “suggesting openly that once [Labour’s] in power, the civil service will seek to undermine the will of a socialist government.” These views are, he added, “somewhere between a half-baked undergraduate thesis and getting your excuses in early.”

But Penman said that the civil service will hold onto its values, which “cannot be bought to satisfy the ideologies of either left or right. And with ministers increasingly unwilling to defend them, it will be the FDA – as it has been for a century – on the front line of that defence.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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