In my Yorkshire Bylines article of 9 March, Time to de-colonise Yorkshire, I wrote that it was now time for Yorkshire to produce its own charter of rights. Now I realise that, not just Yorkshire but the UK itself, has been colonised. Just as in 1889 Cecil John Rhodes had imposed his will over a million square kilometres of central Africa, an area five times larger than the United Kingdom, so this Conservative government is wilfully damaging the lives of the majority of its citizens.
Putting politics to one side, one of the critical (and cynical) errors the Conservative ministers are making is the mishandling of the civil service. Instead of optimising the institution it treats it as its dogsbody. It is rather like a rich farmer who buys a Bentley, and then uses it for ploughing. The politicians appear to have no understanding of the quality of the staff and its value to the nation.
As a former resident of Zambia, I have the highest regard for civil services generally, from personal experience in the UK, India and Africa. Here follows an example from central Africa.
From Empire to Independence
The former British colony I was born and brought up in in the 1950s was the larger part of the Central African Federation, later called Northern Rhodesia and now Zambia. I lived an idyllic life in a tight-knit mining community, and an even more idyllic life in the new, stable, independent nation. Unlike its southern neighbour, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, the transition to independence in 1964 had been reasonably smooth and peaceful.
What was behind this? One of the key factors was the colonial service’s dedicated civil servants who had administered the country from 1920 to the 1960s, levering it away from the more top-down predations of Rhodes’ private British South Africa company. Who were these civil servants? What did they do? Here is an example.
In the mid-80s I ran a negotiation training course for procurement in a hotel on the Wye River. The trainees were buyers from Xerox . A tough lively lot. After dinner they congregated in the bar where a slightly drunk, lean and tanned 50-something man with a posh accent engaged in conversation with them. At first, as the English do, they humoured him. Then, as they drew him out, the attitudes changed, the questions grew more serious.
A vivid picture of the life of a young colonial office district officer in the bush country of the former Northern Rhodesia emerged. He was one of only three white British men administering to 50,000 people in an area the size of Yorkshire. At the rural district headquarters the entire clerical staff was made up of indigenous peoples and most had at least one indigenous executive officer. The rural administration was entirely dependent on its local staff.
He had learned the indigenous languages and had studied the various tribal customs, beginning while at Oxford University. He described how he spent at least a third of the time on tour, living under canvas and going from village to village in the chiefs’ areas. He clearly loved it, the responsibility, the people, the wildlife, the bush itself – a vivid picture as the photo shows below.
Collaborative relations smooth the transition
He went on to tell how he went back to the UK to marry another Oxford student and bring her back to accompany him on his tours – and how, two years later, she and their newborn child died in their tent on the edge of the great Luangwa River. You could hear a pin drop. “But we had a wonderful two years together.”
After he returned from her funeral, he resumed his role of listening to and understanding the preoccupations of local people. All this was conducted in collaboration with traditional authority represented by the chief and the local village headman. He insisted that district officers never tried to force so-called British values on the people.
“We respected their way of life and were more concerned with health and hygiene, and basic education. The tribal system worked really well.”
And it was this responsible attitude that guided the nation towards independence with a high degree of preparedness.
It was a thoughtful group of trainees that assembled the next morning. The main topic of conversation the next day was about the civil service and duty.
The myth of private ‘efficiency’
I was to get to know the civil servants even better when, five years later, I was invited to run my negotiation programme for the senior civil servants on Margaret Thatcher’s top management programme at Sunningdale civil service training centre. I had a great time. Their intellectual ability and willingness to learn was a revelation; head and shoulders above the politicians who appeared as guests.
This was reinforced when I served on the Cabinet Office government construction strategy in 2011-2014 where, for example, the highways maintenance programme out-performed most private sector construction projects – with the honourable exception of the London Olympics. In 2012/13 the Cabinet Office strategy had generated £447mn in savings. Compare that with the politicians’ PPE debacle.
The Conservative government runs down the civil service at its, and the nation’s peril. The question is why would they do it – apart from simple arrogance and incompetence? The answer is ideology and sheer ignorance as to how successful organisations really work.
Somehow, this government equates cutting costs with efficiency, which actually increase costs, especially in services, and has been magnified by the introduction of the worst of business practices into civil service organisations, beginning with introducing competition and privatisation into the service in order to be ‘more efficient’. We can see how well privatisation has worked in the railways and water industries.
The all-too-visible costs of ideology
The shrinking of the state began in earnest in 1979 by using the old trope it was costing too much, with Thatcher boasting that she was a grocer’s daughter and understood business. Early on she told cabinet secretary, Sir John Hunt, that it wasn’t clear why the work currently being done by 566,000 non-industrial civil servants could not be done equally well by 500,000. (After all, 500,000 is a nice round number!). Such was the simplistic thinking.
The cynical political mood of understanding the cost of everything and the value of nothing began to prevail. In 2022 Jacob Rees-Mogg as Cabinet Office minister proposed cutting 91,000 staff to save money. That is simply hopeless leadership. By December that had been retracted, but morale had again been dented and Rees-Mogg’s reputation even more so.
We now see the damage to public services this attrition has caused in education, health and public safety. There is also a serious risk here of national unrest when public services begin to fail. It has been the trigger point for the Arab spring and the municipal riots in South Africa.
A good example is the Home Office. After 2011 the government cut the staff levels by 25%, no doubt to save money. The backlog of asylum seekers waiting more than six months for a decision to be made on their case has since trebled after Priti Patel took over as home secretary in 2019. Today, under Suella Braverman, there is a backlog of over 166,000 asylum seekers being housed at a cost of £7mn a day. That is £25.5bn a year. The diagram below illustrates:
Invoking the ancient right of the commons
Behind these bland figures lies a story of rising misery for the persecuted immigrants, and disbelief at the hare-brained and heartless government corrective measures. The government today could truly be described as a ship of fools. Perhaps we need to re-invoke the oft-cited Magna Carta that brought down an unworthy king, applying the line:
“… to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
On the breaching of that alone we should begin the process of de-colonisation of this land by those without scruples, conscience or competence.