Written for the Sunday Telegraph
What the public wants from government and what our public servants want to deliver have never been more different.
Ask the public their priorities and they will likely say; help with the cost of living, a functioning health service, schools making good the learning lost during the pandemic, and economic growth to pay for better services without higher taxes.
What they don’t ask for is more focus on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, obsessing over multiple definitions of gender and sexuality, or ‘decolonising’ everything from the curriculum to our buildings. Yet, these are the priorities for many who dominate the public service.
Vivid proof of how those priorities crowd out all other objectives was provided last week by a report on Healthcare Leadership. Faced with a dysfunctional NHS – increasingly marred by scandalous clinical failures, intolerable waiting lists, diminishing chances of seeing a GP and escalating costs – Sajid Javid very sensibly called in a soldier to give some brusque, military common-sense advice on leadership. On paper, Sajid could not have made a better choice: General Sir Gordon Messenger – the only man to win the DSO twice, for defeating Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq and commanding the Helmand task force against the Taliban. Sajid asked him: “to look at how we can support leaders to drive up efficiency and give staff the space to focus on delivering care for patients”.
But this terror of the Taliban and scourge of Saddam was no match for ‘the Blob’. They reduced him to “the very model of a modern major general” mocked by Gilbert and Sullivan for spouting every fashionable nostrum instead of showing military skills. He signed a report that side-stepped every issue he was asked to address and instead focussed almost entirely on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) – which is mentioned three times as often as patients! There was just one cursory mention of efficiency. Not a single mention of ghastly clinical failures at Mid-Staffs, Morecombe Bay, Shrewsbury and Telford. No mention of waiting lists, cover-ups, clinical standards or value for money.
Worse still, it states that demonstrating a commitment to EDI is more important than “just technical skills”. It is important to eliminate discrimination from the health service, not least so that we promote the best people regardless of ethnicity. But when someone we love goes to hospital it is the technical skills of the medical staff we worry about.
The report sets goals for “increasing the representation of underrepresented groups”, but no goals for improving patient outcomes. Worst of all, it proposes using the Everyday Discrimination Scale (which asks staff to report how discriminated against they feel) as an “objective” tool of management. Yet this is entirely subjective and, published research suggests, completely worthless.
Sajid Javid – one of our most robust Ministers – very sensibly kicked this nonsense into touch by pretending that the report’s main recommendation was to reduce the number of full time Equality, Diversity and Inclusion managers (actually it was to make EDI every manager’s top task). But the fact that someone of General Messenger’s calibre can succumb to the prevailing woke ideology proves its potency.
In many other departments the Blob is trying to impose its views. Nadim Zahawi’s officials served up a Schools Bill which rows back on previous work pushing power away from Whitehall towards parents. Home Office officials openly campaign against Priti Patel’s plans to discourage illegal immigration. Treasury and other departments resist reaping Brexit dividends by diverging from EU overregulation. But Ministers cannot blame their officials – Ministers are accountable for what their departments do and must impose their will.
And conflicts between Ministers and officials are nothing new. They were brilliantly portrayed in the TV series Yes Minister. One real Minister, when asked if Yes Minister was realistic, replied: “You think it’s a comedy. We know it’s a documentary!” In fact, it depicts what happens when a Minister has no clear agenda or convictions but chases headlines. Then the civil servants do take over.
But, in my experience, if a Minister is strongly committed to a clear agenda – even one which clashes with the prevailing civil service mindset – officials will help deliver it. Certainly, mine did so magnificently.
In Thatcher’s time, the prevailing civil service mindset was ‘statist’ – the only options served up to Ministers were top-down regulation, public spending and state control. Successful Ministers had to devise their own proposals based on markets, choice and delegation and drive them through.
To be fair to Ministers today, they face that same statist mindset but compounded by a virulent belief that the pursuit of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, decolonisation and environmental virtue signalling are more important than prosperity, freedom and opportunity. However, the only answer to a virulent ideology is a more powerful vision, backed up by evidence and pursued with relentless conviction. Every attempt by officials to impose woke ideas must be challenged. Fallacious woke beliefs must be countered with facts. To his credit, Boris Johnson started that process with the brilliant Sewell Report on Racial Disparities debunking claims that Britain is fundamentally racist. Sadly, because of the pandemic, this was not followed through.
The challenge may be tough, no government has been better equipped to refute woke denigration of Britain as a racist society. Most leading cabinet Ministers are of ethnic minority origin. They got there, not by harping on about equality, but by demonstrating their ability. They have the moral authority to insist that their officials do likewise.