There is an undeclared war going on, waged by the left establishment in Great Britain on Priti Patel, the British-Indian Home Secretary under Boris Johnson. Ostensibly, the bureaucrats in her department are revolting – with her Permanent Secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, resigning on Saturday and proceeding to sue to the government for effectively being forced out of the job – because Patel has been bullying them. The real reason is that the Home Office is against the Tory election policy to introduce the Australian-style points-based immigration system now that Great Britain is out of the European Union. Some more conspiratorially minded observers also think the Home Office mandarins don’t want the light to be shone on the full extent of the mostly Pakistani-run so called “grooming gangs”, which over the recent decades have raped thousands of underage girls throughout the country, the abuse epidemic that has been covered up at all levels of authority lest it stokes racial tension and Islamophobia.
Whatever the case, it’s unacceptable that public servants are trying to actively sabotage a democratically elected government, which is trying to implement one of its core policies. As the former Tory opposition leader, Ian Duncan Smith, commented:
Too many top civil servants, astonishingly on higher salaries than the PM, sit atop dysfunctional departments and slope their shoulders when problems arise, leaving ministers to face the onslaught.
Now, faced with a Downing Street talking of reforming these institutions, a small number of them have, it seems, set out to block the Government.
This orchestrated campaign to get rid of a very senior minister will backfire, for it calls into question the loyalty and dedication of all civil servants, and when that trust breaks down, the next step is massive reform of the civil service.
In other words, drain the swamp along the River Thames. Brendan O’Neill writes at Spiked-Online:
Civil servants have been falling out with governments for as long as both have existed. But normally the civil servant in question would take it on the chin, slink off into obscurity (or maybe the Lords), and live out a plush retirement. Not Rutnam. He made his resignation into a political weapon. He seems to be out to undermine the elected government. That is more scandalous than Priti Patel allegedly asking civil servants why they are all so ‘fucking useless’.
The Patel / Rutnam clash is more than a personality problem. It’s about politics, and democracy. According to reports – and we must wait to see how true all this is – Rutnam ‘obstructed’ Patel. He reportedly thought she wasn’t up to the job of home secretary and allegedly tried to hinder some of her priorities. If this is true, it looks like the unelected wing of government – the machinery of the civil service – seeking to block the wishes and programme of the elected wing of government. And now Rutnam is threatening to sue the government for constructive dismissal, which would further weaken Patel’s position, potentially hamper her Home Office work, and posit the bureaucracy against elected ministers.
This looks like the revenge of the bureaucracy, a fightback by functionaries, against a freshly, enthusiastically elected government whom they dislike or disagree with. That is intolerable. The civil service exists to act upon the wishes of the government voted in by us, the people. Rutnam’s emotionalist and politicised resignation speaks to a civil service that has forgotten this role and has become rather too big for its boots. It speaks to a civil service which, as we have already seen over the past three-and-a-half years of Brexit tension, believes it knows better than the plebs what the political priorities of the nation should be.
I have called this phenomenon “the Shallow State”, to distinguish it from the Deep State, where the intelligence and law enforcement machinate and conspire to frustrate, if not actually unseat, their own democratically elected leaders. The Shallow State is not as nefarious but is no less disturbing; what we have here are the mostly left-leaning public servants clashing with the mostly right-leaning governments over policy direction of the country. The bureaucrats think they are the true guardians of the pubic interest (as interpreted by them), that they know better, and that the elected officials should do as they are told, instead of – how the democratic theory and practice suggest – those elected by the people, and advised by the public service, making the policy, which the public service then implements.
A lot of public servants are professionals who can transcend their personal political beliefs (whatever they are) and offer an impartial, unbiased, high quality support for the government of the day. But a lot of public servants are not; they are essentially activists who are attracted to government work precisely because they can help put their own beliefs in action. Others might not be deeply ideological but they assume the arrogance of their expertise and resent all those not as smart and sophisticated as them who don’t listen to their institutional wisdom.
This is a major test of strength and determination, both in the United States and Great Britain (and elsewhere throughout the developed world), which the centre-right administrations cannot afford to lose.
(Cover image: the Guardian cartoon, portraying Patel as an evil looking (sacred?) cow)