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Provocations

Things Fall Apart

Today a Civil Servant resigned. That happens. It’s not unusual. I myself quit 2 years ago to save my sanity in the face of unsustainable cognitive dissonance.

But it is unusual when a Civil Servant resigns stating,

“I am also at a stage in life where I would prefer to do something more rewarding with my time, than peddle half-truths on behalf of a government I do not trust.”

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-50693537

This raises some deep questions about the state of Civil Society in the UK. You can think of Civil Society as being the rules that define how a society works. They are a mixture of written rules, norms and acceptable behaviours.

The balance between formally codified rules and societal norms varies from country to country with many having a written constitution and a declaration of basic rights as the bedrock.

The UK has always worked on the basis that such things were unnecessary as Civil Society was a given. The British Constitution did not actually exist but that was fine as the norms and precedents of how Britain worked were well known and universally accepted.

And then came Brexit…

It turns out that the Civil Society in Britain is built on very shaky foundations. In the past few months we have seen the illegal suspension of Parliament, an act that carried no consequences whatsoever; we have seen Civil Servants bullied out of their jobs by politicians who were then rewarded for their harassment by promotion and increased status; we have seen the government spend £100’s of millions on trying to deny the consequences of its own policy on Brexit and, in doing so, do possibly irreparable damage to the global reputation of the UK.

A Prime Minister who lies in their private life is a cad. One who lies to the public and demands that Civil Servants endorse those lies is a threat to democracy.

It is clear that Civil Society in the UK is not up to the job of constraining such a PM.

The failure of the BBC for example is not playing the wrong clip or “biased” reporting, it is that it covers the UK and its government in a way that it would never treat a third country. The norms the BBC works to are that the UK is a stable democracy with mutual respect and interchange between media and government. These norms no longer apply and the BBC has been left looking foolish and badly exposed.

Stefan Czerniawski wrote an excellent blog post on the ethical challenge that faces the Civil Service. The resignation of Alexandra Hall Hall highlights the heart of that question of legitimacy posed by Stefan.

I found many things odd in my time in the Senior Civil Service, but the thing that I found oddest was the universal presumption that tomorrow would be like today. That the stability of the UK was a given.

This attitude pervades the British Establishment, from media to academia, from the Senior Civil Service to the bulk of politicians.

It always felt to me a profoundly dangerous presumption. Especially as it led to the view that Civil Society was something that happened overseas. The UK was very happy to advise on it but did not need any lessons in it.

Arrogance and complacency are usually the precursor to disaster. I fear that even now the Establishment in this country has no idea of what is coming. We urgently need to build a strong Civil Society if the UK is to survive.

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