The UK Civil Service is politically neutral and permanent. It is a career service, with senior civil servants able to advise successive governments of different parties. This system has survived more or less intact since the Northcote-Trevelyan report in 1854 and subsequent reforms under Gladstone. While the Civil Service retains considerable prestige, it has in recent times been caught in political cross-fires.
Prior to Northcote-Trevelyan, appointment was often by purchase and patronage, a system that had been subject to the influence of courtiers to the Crown. Under the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, appointment was to be subject to merit and a career service was instituted, in which a civil servant would be permanent, ie could stay in office regardless of any change in government.
A civil servant is politically neutral and serves each administration with equal impartiality and enthusiasm. This is contrasted with the US system, in which top roles are in the gift of the incoming administration and will often change accordingly.
This tradition of neutrality has at times come under strain. Some senior officials have been accused of bias, either in favour of another party or having an “establishment” perspective that opposed new policies of an incoming administration. The classic example of this perception was the character of Sir Humphrey in the long-running TV series, “Yes, Minister” (1980-84), who is shown as the real power broker behind his minister.
Thus there have been allegations at times of bias against an administration’s policies. Harold Wilson’s colleagues believed that senior mandarins (as they are often called) conspired to undermine their reforms which were supposed to clash with a “departmental” policy on certain issues. Mrs Thatcher too had her run-ins with top civil servants, and it was under her regime that increasingly special advisors (SpAd’s) to minsters were used. These were political appointments, spearate to the civil service but having access to civil servants in their work. It has been increasingly notable that incoming ministers have moved on senior officials that they did not feel fully comfortable with.
Brexit threatens neutrality
With Brexit, there have been a number of high-profile clashes leading to resignations. After the referendum in 2016, the UK representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned after pressure from ministers after giving what was seen as anti-Brexit advice, but what was probably more blunt information as to the likely consequences of policy. Recently, the British Ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, was forced to resign after an unknown person leaked his confidential memos to government. Such memos are normally very frank but the publication was very damaging, leading to a withdrawal of confidence from the Trump administration. What, however, triggered the actual resignation was the very clear refusal of the expected next leader of the Tory Party and likely PM to support him. This led to a crisis of confidence amongst the top civil service.
Under Brexit, as well as being under immense pressure due to the sheer difficulty of the challenge of the project, top civil servants are finding themselves right in the cross-fire in a bitterly divided political atmosphere. To raise practical objections to policy, which would be normal in government, has been seen as questioning the policy itself and in the fervered atmosphere left them open to accusations of being “Remainers”. A former senior civil servant at the Treasury, Jill Rutter, has written, “The atmosphere around Brexit means raising practical objections is interpreted as hostility to the entire project … Simply asking the questions is seen as evidence that the civil service is not impartial on the project.” Some civil servants have even received death threats.
Civil Service impartiality is often regarded as a cornerstone of the British system of government, but it is now under unprecedented strain.