Mrs Thatcher was right – Nigel Thornton

The sheer professionalism of the British Civil Service, which allows governments to come and go with a minimum of dislocation and a maximum of efficiency, is something other countries with different systems have every cause to envy.Margaret Thatcher, 1993, “The Downing Street Years”,

Whatever your view of the honours system, there is a certain irony that the reporting of DFID Permanent Secretary Mark Lowcock’s New Year’s Knighthood in the Daily Mail mentioned the difficult airport project in St Helena.

The writers of the Mail story are unlikely to be aware that the 1833 St Helena Act was the first legislation that sought to ensure British civil servants were appointed on merit. While this part of the Act was repealed, the later 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report succeeded in making the necessary reform. As (Lord) Peter Hennessy has said, the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms achieved;

the greatest single governing gift of the nineteenth to the twentieth century: a politically disinterested and permanent Civil Service with core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next

The monstering of Sir Mark, as well as this week’s criticisms of the now former Ambassador to the European Union Sir Ivan Rogers, plus calling Supreme Court Judges ‘Enemies of the People’ illustrate a profound lack of understanding of, and respect for, key institutions of democracy in the UK. At its core, the reporting seems to deny the possibility that public servants could be anything other than self-interested.

If we move to a position where civil servants are expected not to be objective, then we not only unpick our constitution, but are unlearning the wisdom of hundreds of years (which Mrs Thatcher well understood). Much reporting of the last 6 months denies that when civil servants implement policy, seek to speak truth to power, (or wrestle with a point of law) they do not do so for personal gain or aggrandisement. My experience over more than 25 years is that almost without exception they seek to serve the National Interest.

They are like airline pilots, doing their job, achieving targets in accordance with agreed policy and rules, even when asked to fly in directions they’d personally prefer not to go. Remove that expertise and their hard won values and there is only one direction we are going, and its down.

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