UK PM hopeful branded ‘abhorrent’ for accusing civil servants of antisemitism

By on 15/08/2022 | Updated on 15/08/2022
UK foreign minister and candidate to become prime minister, Lis Truss, sits at a desk before a microphone.
Truss was announced the UK's new prime minister on 5 September 2022 after a long leadership contest this summer. Photo by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

Liz Truss, who is foreign secretary and the favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as UK prime minister, has been condemned by unions and civil servants for saying she would “change woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism”.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, called the remark – which was included in a press release from Truss’s campaign team on Friday – “inflammatory” and “insulting and abhorrent”.

Penman, along with Prospect union boss Mike Clancy, sent a letter to the minister asking her to produce evidence to substantiate her claims, which they described as “without foundation and offensive”.

They wrote: “The UK prime minister is also the minister for the civil service. For such unfounded and sweeping assertions to be made, by someone with aspirations for that office, is deeply damaging and undermines those working to drive forward diversity, inclusion and an open and welcoming culture in the civil service.”  

They added that any “genuine concerns” about antisemitism or any form of discrimination in the civil service should be raised with the cabinet secretary Simon Case to be investigated.

Backlash

Truss also said in the release that she had “been very clear with our officials about the positions we take on Israel, and that will continue if I become prime minister” and, referring to the civil service, that “every organisation has its culture, but it’s not fixed, it can be changed”.

Numerous civil servants, academics, opposition party politicians and journalists, including Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge – who is Jewish and has been outspoken about antisemitism in her own party – Times columnist Hugo Rifkind and Dr Ruvi Ziegler of Reading University, have also criticised the accusations, variously describing them “nonsense”, “baffling”, “pathetic” and “deeply disappointing”.  

One anonymous official quoted by HuffPost, said: “Honestly, we’re used to ridiculous comments from ministers but to start throwing around that the civil service is antisemitic is such a baffling and odd attack and so offensive to civil servants.

“It’s also patently nonsensical to say ‘they’re so woke they’re antisemitic’. What on earth does that even mean? Every single day I consider leaving the civil service because of these people.”

Another official, who is Jewish and also asked not to be named, told Huff Post: “I think she’s just vomited out a load of buzzwords and ended up with something objectionable.

“The civil service is the best workplace to be Jewish to be honest, everyone is so friendly, so it’s all quite strange.”

Sam Freedman, a senior fellow at British think tank the Institute for Government, also voiced surprise at the comments. “I worked in the civil service for three years and have worked with numerous officials on various things since then and have never once experienced any antisemitism. Bizarre comment.”

Truss herself has been accused by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner and the Union of Jewish Students of stereotyping the Jewish community for comments in the same release that the community holds values such as “setting up businesses and protecting the family unit”.

Latest of many attacks on the civil service

The FDA’s Penman added that Truss’s “accusation goes further than the usual dog-whistle politics that has been on display during this leadership campaign when it comes to the civil service”.

Earlier in her campaign to become PM, Truss vowed to wage a “war on Whitehall waste”. She proposed creating “regional pay boards” to set civil sector pay, matching it more closely to local labour markets outside London and the south east of England. She was forced to make a U-turn earlier this month after a backlash within her own party.

Analysts pointed out the purported £8.8bn (US$10.6bn) saving from the policy was only achievable by cutting wages across the public sector, including for teachers, nurses and police officers.

The controversy around Truss’s latest remarks follow months of criticisms of the civil service by government ministers, particularly around plans to get civil servants to return to offices after working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Such criticism has been led by minister for government efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Read more: UK minister hints work-from-home civil servants could face job cuts

A former civil servant, who now works in the private sector, told HuffPost that the government’s “constant attacks” on the civil service caused them to leave.

“I know of dozens of good civil servants who are leaving because of this negativity,” they said. “How ministers, MPs, and leadership candidates can keep making unsubstantiated comments and threats, and still expect to have anyone who can actually deliver left, is beyond me.”

Truss is up against ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak in the leadership bid. She is the favourite to win according to polls.

Current PM Boris Johnson agreed to step down last month after a series of scandals, including ‘partygate’ in which he was found to have attended gatherings in Downing Street that were illegal under COVID-19 restrictions.

Read more: ‘Maybe I was at a Downing Street party’: GGF readers respond to Rees-Mogg’s back-to-the-office note

Like this story? Sign up to Global Government Forum’s email news notifications to receive the latest news and interviews in your inbox.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. Lee Jones says:

    Instead of accusing the Civil Service of being anti-Semitic, why not hold Israel to account for its numerous and repeated infringements of Palestinian human rights? Or for its consistent failure to acknowledge in any way the UN resolutions relating to its denial of access to medical services, fresh water, food etc for the Palestian people, its land-grabbing and ‘settlement’ of the best pieces of land in that region, and its on-going construction of a wall around the Palestinians? Yes I am a public employee, and yes I do speak out against Israel, and yes I would be considered Woke by most people, but that is because I am a caring and thinking person with an acute and very open-eyed world view who abhors what Israel has done and continues to do in the full gaze of the world, its ‘leaders’ and the UN. When I see hypocrisy, I call it out. Right now, I see hypocrisy in both Israel and at the heart of our government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.