Almost a year ago today I formally left the civil service.
Handing in my notice was one of the hardest things I’ve voluntarily done. I’d joined the civil service immediately after leaving university and loved it. I’d done incredibly exciting things, from meeting ministers, working on policy as it was formed, going to No. 10 and to the House of Commons and even working overseas in the Philippines. The work was meaningful, enjoyable and interesting; I’d worked with some of the best, friendliest and most talented colleagues you could hope for ask for; and, for many years, a lot of my hopes, dreams and ambitions had been bound up in being a civil servant. For me, being a civil servant was more than just a job or even a profession; it was a core part of my identity.
It’s true, some things weren’t as good as when I had joined. Real pay and pensions had fallen dramatically, and working conditions had worsened, particularly in terms of the office environment (cramped and noisy), workload pressures and general levels of staff well-being. The abolition of promotion boards and weakening of other procedures had undermined the gold standard of fair and transparent promotion (though I myself had done very well, it was sad to see younger civil servants, probably accurately, so much more focused on ‘who you know’, than we had been ten years before). But none of this changed the fact that it was a job I loved, doing meaningful, interesting, inspiring work, in a career that offered the prospect of many potential exciting opportunities for the future.
So why did I leave? Well, there were the practical reasons I gave at the time. And they weren’t false, either. It was a good idea to get more experience in a different industry; I would learn from moving to another organisation; it was true that the thought of working in one organisation for 45 years didn’t seem the most adventurous way to spend a lifetime; and I could earn a bit more money in the private sector. But none of these were at the heart of the issue, and none by themselves would have made me leave. The truth was that, much as I continued to admire the ideal of the politically impartial civil service, I’d realised that it wasn’t for me.
The growing realisation
When I joined the civil service in 2002 I was adamant that, although I was interested in current affairs, I wasn’t political. And that was basically true. I had opinions, of course, and read the news, but I’d never been involved with any political student society or party, had never gone on marches or protests and quietly thought that civil servants were clearly vastly superior beings to the foolish politicians. Sir Humphrey would have nodded approvingly. Although I voted Conservative, I had no qualms about working for New Labour – Tony Blair was, after all, fairly moderate – and the political parties didn’t seem so far apart. I sought out relatively non-political areas such as science policy, competition law and trade (yes, trade was non-political once!) and happily served under ministers from different parties including Gareth Thomas (Labour), Ed Davey (Lib Dem) and Jo Swinson (Lib Dem).
From about 2014 onwards, though, politics began heating up. The Brexit debate became noisier; the Conservatives won an absolute majority in 2015 and Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, a traditional left-wing socialist who blew any pretence that the parties were basically the same out of the window. The real turning point though was the Brexit referendum. I had been a passionate believe in leaving the EU for years and to be forced under the civil service code to stand on the sidelines, not to be able to knock on doors, engage on social media or anything else was hugely difficult – especially when, unlike in a normal election, my Remain supporting colleagues were free to post openly about their views, as the government was officially supporting Remain. I even had to refuse a summons to give evidence to a Select Committee (they were very persistent!), which didn’t sit well with either my respect for Parliament or my desire to stand up and support what I believed in.
More broadly, the referendum fundamentally dented my belief in the impartiality of British institutions. From the £7m taxpayer funded mailshot, the Treasury’s dodgy dossiers, the rolling out of Obama and the IMF to support Remain or the Bank of England’s carefully target interventions, it was clear that the supposedly impartial institutions of the British establishment were giving all the support they could to Remain. With hindsight I was naïve to think otherwise: exactly the same behaviour had occurred in the Scottish referendum, but I hadn’t noticed because that time I was on the Remain side.
The aftermath too, hit home hard. It was highly obvious that, certainly among senior civil servants, I was in a tiny minority of Leave voters. I don’t mean that I ever faced explicit criticism, but I certainly felt isolated, wanting to rejoice while most around me were openly mourning. There was also a period where civil servants from across government were being moved to the new departments of DExEU and DIT – and I notably wasn’t, despite five years’ experience of trade policy (not to mention the 2014 Brexit essay). This certainly felt as though the civil service didn’t want any Leave supporters near the decision-making departments – but I was doing an interesting job I was committed to, for a minister I liked and respected, so I shrugged and carried on.
All in all though, it began to make me move beyond the frustrations of not being able to blog or comment (which I know many civil servants feel at times, and is part of the job) to more fundamentally questioning whether I really wanted to continue within the civil service.
Two models of a top civil servant
There are perhaps two principal archetypes of a top civil servant (i.e. Director General or Permanent Secretary). The first is the empty vessel, the person who manages to fully subsume their own personality in order to fulfill their political masters’ desires, serving any party to the fullest of their ability, with never a hint of their own wishes or desires. The second is the Sir Humphrey figure, the master manipulator, who ensures that no matter who is in charge, it is ministry policy that gets delivered, moderating the intemperate desires of politicians for the good for the nation. In so far as they are portrayed in the media, Sir Jeremy Heywood was an example of the first archetype; Olly Robbins would be an example of the second (I’ve never worked with either, so can’t say whether the depictions are true).
Of course, neither archetype entirely reflects reality but, at the same time, there’s more than a grain of truth in each.
As I thought about it, I realised I wanted to be neither. I was very much enjoying my then role, designing the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), not just because it was an interesting challenge, but because I believed in the work and felt strongly supportive and aligned to my Minister, Jo Johnson. I realised I’d be much less comfortable working on a policy I strongly disagreed with. While at more junior levels it is relatively easy to find a technocratic bit of policy you don’t feel strongly about, as a Deputy Director (the level at which I left), you’re much more likely to have to deliver something you oppose – and, at that level, being successful means acting as a positive advocate of it both internally, to your team and colleagues, and externally. As a Director or Director-General, as your portfolio widens, this only increases.
At a more fundamental level, also, I like being known for things. That can be for unimportant things, such as the writer of my Christmas Quizzes, or more serious things, such as being introduced as the architect of the TEF. I like that I have a chapter in a book coming out, or the ability to speak at conferences under my own name. Of course, in any organisation, one will be speaking as part of an organisation, but the civil service takes it to extremes: reports are always unauthored (as government reports), civil servants (outside of press office) very rarely interact with media and, when speaking in public or to a Select Committee, a civil servant is very clearly subsuming themselves beneath their minister. This is not a criticism of the system – it is part of having an impartial civil service – but I would prefer a more forward role.
As to the Sir Humphrey approach, for one thing, I don’t like being devious or manipulative. I’m happy to disagree with someone, but I’d much rather be upfront and direct with them about it. Of course, I know the techniques of how to work through a bureaucracy and across Whitehall to get things done (or to put a stop to them), but it’s not a part of the job I relish. I also have a belief in democracy and, much as I love Yes Minister as comedy, at the end of the day I’m no believer in technocracy.
Equally importantly, I realised I disagreed with most of my colleagues in the civil service – and not just about Brexit. If the civil service does act as a moderator on the impulses of ministers (and sometimes it does), it does so as the epitome of the British establishment, and it has firmly establishment views. These are views which, increasingly, I realised I do not share. Whether it’s on Brexit or grammar schools; the number of people going to university or globalisation; overseas aid or privatisation; identity politics or tuition fees; I’m firmly against the current establishment position. And that causes a problem, because if a big part of senior civil servants’ job is getting together to work out a common position to put to a minister, it doesn’t help if you’re feeling you’re more likely to be on the minister’s side.
I remain a firm believer in the strength of an impartial, apolitical civil service and think we have one of the best in the world – but however much I loved the work, I increasingly realised that role wasn’t for me.
The Times They Are a-Changin’
As I said above, after the great moderation of the ‘noughties and early 2010s, politics seemed to be becoming more and more important. The establishment position (economical liberal, socially progressive) had been firmly in control for two decades but had also been relatively benign: there seemed both little point and little urgency to protest against it. But around 2014-15, probably as a delayed reaction to the financial crisis, that all began to change.
The Coalition, though very successful in many ways, had also exposed critical fault lines between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems on everything from the EU to the importance of marriage. Brexit was climbing the political agenda. The ‘centrist’ consensus on matters from immigration to tuition fees to globalisation was looking increasingly unsustainable. Labour elected a 1970s-style socialist as leader and, for a short period in 2017, it appeared as though the Tories were genuinely reinventing themselves to prioritise the left-behind communities, to make markets work for ordinary people and to rehabilitate social policies such as grammar schools from beyond the pale (sadly, this early flowering went on to disappoint). The high feelings and bitter disappointment of the hard-fought 2017 general election – in which, as a civil servant, I once again had to stay silent – only reinforced the feelings awakened in 2016.
The unexpected victory of Leave, triumphing as it did over a significantly better funded campaign that included the massed ranks of big business, academia, all three major parties plus the Greens, SNP and Plaid, the full civil service machine (until purdah), the C of E, the NGO community and the interventions of everyone from Barack Obama to Christine Lagarde offered a new hope: that victory was possible. That the forward-rolling stone of the establishment consensus could be halted, and even rolled back.
At the same time that Brexit showed resistance was possible, events across the pond offered a warning. While Trump’s victory was also a defeat for the establishment, supported by many of the left-behind communities and individuals who had supported Brexit, Trump himself is a racist misogynist who puts children in cages. The message is clear: if decent people will not stand up for those who are unrepresented, the void will be filled by scoundrels and demagogues.
And there is a need for people to stand up. In both Britain and America (and perhaps elsewhere) the social progressive movement has been ramping up its aggression, actively seeking to control the Overton Window and to remove views and people who oppose it from public life. The unrelenting campaign by the losing side to block Brexit, which began the day after the referendum, demonstrates how unwillingly the establishment will brook defeat. Ladders of opportunity for ordinary working people are under constant attack by the educationally privileged. Fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right of parents and minority groups to educate their children are under direct threat, with increasingly few in the mainstream willing to stand up in their defence. Outward signs of culture and history are directly targeted. The plurality of thought, community groups, cultures and world-views that make up a vibrant modern democracy is being openly rejected in favour of a narrow conformity with only superficial differences permitted. As Dylan puts it, ‘there’s a battle outside and it’s raging‘ – and I couldn’t allow myself to stand on the sidelines anymore.
I’m under no delusions that I can make a big difference. But we can all make a small difference in society and politics, whether that’s by providing a voice for those who feel they cannot speak up, persuading those in our immediate surroundings or adding our hands and feet to a campaign or protest near to us. If I can do more, via a knowledge of policy and government, by writing for think tanks and on policy sites, or by standing for election locally, I will. But at the end of the day, we are morally called on to do what we can, not that what we can do should be large.
So a year on, what was the result?
On a practical side, I’ve been fortunate to move into a good and fulfilling job that I enjoy, demonstrating there are indeed interesting jobs outside the civil service. Of course, as with leaving any specific role, there are some unique aspects of the civil service that I miss (working with ministers, going into Parliament) – but there are other compensations, and I’m still able to engage in the public policy debate at a national level.
What’s been more exciting is the number of things outside work that I’ve been able to take up, which I simply wasn’t allowed to do before. Not all of these have been political. I’ve become a university governor, which is hugely rewarding, and I have a chapter coming out in a book later this year, on Higher Education Public Affairs and Policy. Neither of these would have been permitted in the civil service. Another exciting development, the launch of the Quiz Time App with a friend, would have been allowed, but the opportunity would never have arisen if I hadn’t been blogging.
I’ve been able to stay active in the public policy space, commenting on grade inflation, the TEF and university governance on Wonkhe and tuition fees, rebuilding conservatism and, of course, Brexit on Conservative Home. I’ve enjoyed blogging and good conversations resulting from it and had the opportunity to speak at a couple of higher education conferences. Two initiatives I’ve led have received significant coverage in the mainstream national news: my report for HEPI on grammar schools and progression to university and the petition and campaign against essay mills. The former made a contribution to a much neglected area of the evidence base and the latter may (amongst other things) have contributed to the Education Secretary’s decision to choose it as one of his three recent ‘interventions’ which in turn has led to Paypal deciding to bar essay mills.
Politically, I’ve tried door-to-door canvassing and found that I liked it. I’ve had some great new political experiences, including the inspiring feeling of being at an election count and the highly enjoyable Conservative Party Conference. Most significantly, I’ve been selected as the Conservative Party candidate for my local ward of Panshanger: I’ve enjoyed campaigning for this and, if elected, will look forward to the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to my local area.
There’s a part of me that will always miss the civil service, just as there’s a part of me that will always miss Cambridge. But just as it was right to move on from Cambridge, so it was right to leave the civil service. One year on, I don’t regret the decision to leave and, both in work and outside of it, have found that life has offered all that I was hoping for from it, and more. I’m looking forward to seeing what else the future brings.
This is a fairly personal post. I’m happy to discuss it or answer questions, otherwise I wouldn’t have written it, but if your comment is going to pick out one line and start a debate about Brexit (or whatever), please save that for a future post – I’m sure you’ll have an opportunity. 🙂 Thank you.