Tag Archives: civil service

Nick Clegg Made Me Do It: Why it’s time to end our constitutional ignorance

I wasn’t going to write this post. It was a lovely, sunny day and I was feeling perky and optimistic, in the mood for some light-hearted fluff about weather-related metaphors. And then I picked up the Evening Standard.

Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister, had written another of his periodic columns on why the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Fair enough. But then he did it. He made that stupid, infuriating comment that’s trotted out from time to time when someone is having a pop at the Government…

     “…the founding flaw of this Government – it has a PM who was never elected by anyone, who has no legitimacy  of her own.”

I think that Theresa May’s constituents, the good people of Maidenhead, might take offence at the suggestion that their ballot papers had nothing to do with the election of their MP. Mrs May herself might have been somewhat surprised to find herself in the House of Commons without having been “elected by anyone”. Can you imagine it? One day she’s sitting there, tucking into her grapefruit breakfast at the kitchen table – I’m sure it’s grapefruit; she strikes me as that kind of woman – and the next she finds herself sat on a green leather bench, waving bits of paper at the people opposite. Remarkable.

Except of course, that’s not what happened. Theresa May, as David Cameron before her, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and John Major, was elected as an MP by her constituents. That’s it, people. it was the same for all of them. Because NO-ONE DIRECTLY ELECTS THE PRIME MINISTER.

Just to spell it out – because no-one ever seems to – the only person you vote for in a General Election is a candidate for your constituency. Most candidates stand for a particular political party, and when all the votes have been counted and all the individual MPs elected, the leader of the party with the most MPs becomes Prime Minister and is invited by the Queen to form a Government.

It’s really not that hard.

The only difference is that Theresa May became leader of the Conservative after a General Election. You might argue that when people voted for Joe Bloggs instead of Janet Biggles in the constituency of Little Townsville South, they expected that if the Tories got in David Cameron would be Prime Minister – but unless they lived in Cameron’s constituency of Witney, they had no opportunity AT ALL to either vote for him or not.

It’s not just the man who a few years ago was Deputy Prime Minister who pedals this kind of tripe. It’s all over the place. And it’s not just about “unelected” Prime Ministers. There were also – in the wake of the Brexit judicial review – newspapers and even MPs talking about “unelected judges”, as if the separation of powers wasn’t a fundamental principle of our constitution, an essential bulwark against despotism. There was the confusion between Parliament and Government during the MPs’ expenses scandal. There were the MPs expressing horror about the law on bribery having changed a year after they had passed the Act, as though it somehow had nothing to do with them. There was Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, saying that police and crime commissioners should be in charge of the fire and rescue service because councillors on fire authorities weren’t directly elected, without anyone ever pointing out that she hadn’t been directly elected as Home Secretary either.

This isn’t pedantry. This stuff matters. It matters because a democracy relies on voters having some kind of a clue about what they’re voting for. People need to know how the system works.

And I’m not blaming Joe Public for this. I went to a decent (comprehensive) school and got a first class degree from a Bloomsbury Group University; I read broadsheet newspapers and tried to keep up with current affairs, and I didn’t know any of it either. Because it was never taught. And because commentators like the former Deputy Prime Minister misled us all with the kind of nonsense highlighted above.

It wasn’t until I joined the civil service and was made to do a compulsory six-day course called Parliament, Government and the Civil Service that I understood what the various bits of the system were there to do. For the first time, I knew how they related to each other, how they were held to account, where the tools for influence lay. I had the information I needed to be an engaged citizen.

A little something to be getting on with…

And honestly – I’m starting to wonder if some of this disinformation isn’t a product of design rather than accident.

Do I honestly believe that someone who was Deputy Prime Minister for five years didn’t understand how he got the job? That the Lib Dems went through a set of coalition negotiations with the Tories somehow under the misapprehension that the Ministerial jobs they were arguing about had already been distributed by the electorate in some way?

Clearly, Nick Clegg has seen fit to use an inaccurate and misleading soundbite as a way of scoring political points. Ok, politicians do that all the time.

But should he be allowed to get away with it unchallenged? And is there, perhaps, the smallest chance that there’s more to it than the usual political hollyhocks?

Is the absence from the school curriculum of a grounding in the fundamental building blocks of our constitution  – whisper it – deliberate? Does it help to keep power in the hands of the people who are on the inside? Should I be scratching my head about the fact that the only time I was taught about the most basic elements of our constitution – the only way I even realised I didn’t understand it in the first place – was when I became a civil servant, prevented from engaging in political discourse?

I’m not usually a fan of conspiracy theories and I’m not saying this is all a result of conscious decision-making. But you have to wonder whether the reason this gap in our collective understanding isn’t addressed is because the people with power just don’t think it’s important. Because perhaps they think things work just fine as they are. Perhaps they believe – even at a subconscious level – that the people who need to understand how the system works, how to effect change, already have that information. People Like Them.

But when “the country’s democracy is in a fragile state” (Stephen Kinnock MP, quoted in the same newspaper just six pages on from Nick Clegg’s column), when people have been asked to engage directly through a referendum on issues of sovereign importance to this country’s future, when hardly a day passes without someone banging on about “frustrating the will of the people”… Well, it just seems to me that “the people” should have a bit more of a clue about how this shit works.

It’s time we demanded proper constitutional education as part of the curriculum. It’s time citizens, all of us, were given the tools to make our democracy actually mean something.

Why So Serious? A day in the life of a civil servant

I don’t plan to join the ranks of those who for a brief period worked alongside the civil service and, having failed to make any meaningful contribution whatsoever felt themselves qualified to opine on its shortcomings (yes, Digby Jones, I’m talking about you). The truth is that the civil service is stuffed to the rafters with thoughtful, intelligent, conscientious people who do their very best to give their political masters what they want, whilst being pilloried in the media by those who find it expedient to blame their own failures on officials who are constitutionally prevented from answering back. bureaucracy

That is not to say, however, that the civil service is faultless. After 17 years of working within it, my humble opinion is that its fundamental problem – contrary to what Yes, Minister would have you believe – lies in its treatment of every part of the business of government with equal and total seriousness. In short, it lacks a sense of perspective and occasionally – and worse – a sense of humour.

Whilst names have been changed to protect the innocent, the following is a 100% faithful account of what happened when an area of policy responsibility recently moved from one Whitehall Department to another. For the uninitiated, the following is a quick guide to who’s who in Government bureaucracy:

Secretary of State: Minister who heads a department of State and is a member of the Cabinet. Usually addressed as Secretary of State for X & Y policy area, unless the Department they lead has delusions of grandeur, in which case they are the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary.

Permanent Secretary: Civil servant who leads the department. Responsible for delivering what Ministers want and accountable to Parliament for achieving value for money for taxpayers. Also has the happy task of deciding what to do when those two things are mutually exclusive.

Director General: Civil servant who is one layer down from the Perm Sec. Responsible for a large area of policy, or for all corporate issues (finance, legal etc). In almost all cases, whatever collection of things they are responsible for is known as a “Group”.


Following a machinery of government change, the Department for Administrative Affairs has inherited a new policy responsibility – staplers. Of course, it will need a new strategy and set of initiatives to demonstrate why the previous department was so rubbish and that things are going to be different in stapler world now that the DAA’s in charge. But first things first: the bit of the department into which stapler policy has been absorbed – the Hole Punch and Envelope File Group – needs a new name to reflect its new responsibilities.

The Hole Punch and Envelope File Group’s strategy team swings into action. Advice is written covering options. The person leading the stapler policy team is asked to comment on it – should staplers be added to the title, or would it be better to start with a clean slate – say, the Stationery Efficiency Group? Great minds apply themselves to the question.

A second version of the advice is circulated with a request for the stapler policy lead to comment again. She does.

Time passes.

Everyone is still sitting in their old seats, but a pop-up banner has appeared in their bit of the office announcing to visitors that they are now entering the territory of the Hole Punch and Envelope File Group. The stapler team are restive – is their work going to be any more important to HPEFG than it was to their previous group?

Overnight, a post-it note is stuck to the banner. It reads, in red biro, “AND STAPLERS”.

The stapler policy lead asks whether there’s any news. There isn’t.

More time passes.

Then one afternoon she sees an email attaching a four page document: advice on a new name and mission statement is being submitted to the Permanent Secretary. The covering message notes reassuringly that checks have been made, and it is certain that any changes to HPEFG’s title do not need to be announced to Parliament.

More time passes.

Then one day another email appears: the Director General has discussed the matter with the Permanent Secretary, who has discussed it with the Secretary of State. They have concluded that the new name of the group should be…

The Hole Punch, Envelope File and Staplers Group.

The stapler policy lead allows herself a little smile and taps out an email to her team to let them know the good news. At last, staplers are on the map! (Though not literally, because you’re not allowed to stick anything on the walls in the open plan.)


Barely has she pressed send when up pops another email. This one is from the Director General’s office and it has a red exclamation mark next to it. The stapler policy lead opens it at once. It reads:

“I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone this, but please do not tell your teams about the Group’s name change yet. The comms team are currently working up a communications strategy to manage this.”

The stapler policy lead goes into the ladies loos and rocks quietly back and forth.