The ongoing acrimony between the Tories and the civil service is more than a spat between bullying ministers and snowflake bureaucrats – it signals the deepening cracks in the British state, writes an anonymous civil servant.

circa 1931: A rally of 20,000 civil servants in Piccadilly Circus, London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Something is brewing within our professional classes. Senior doctors are balloting over low pay, barristers have been on strike over legal aid fees and now the union representing the senior civil service has announced its first national pay ballot plans in its history.

Strikes in the senior civil service are rare—only two were officially called in the previous 40 years—and occur when there are major economic and social upheavals in the UK. The first strike in 1981 was in the aftermath of a currency and energy crisis and mirrored wider worker struggles against the Thatcher government. Similarly, in 2011 their second dispute followed the Global Financial Crisis and was part of the UK’s public sector pension strikes. Both actions raised serious questions about the nature of the British state in the face of a global economic crisis.

The fact that the relatively moderate senior civil service union, the First Division Association (FDA), has taken the step to escalate their dispute with the Government over pay emphasises the challenges so many workers currently face in the UK. Even traditionally well-paid middle and senior managers in Whitehall feel squeezed by the current economic crisis. This is compounded by the fact that the civil service has had one of the lowest pay increases in the public sector since the election of the Coalition Government. For senior civil servants, real term salaries have fallen 23 percent since 2010.

The added political subplot for these strikes is the continuous and increasingly public disputes between top officials and the current Tory hierarchy. The recent bullying investigation into Dominic Raab’s conduct with officials—and his subsequent comments about ‘activist civil servants’—brought the fight back into the headlines. And over the last year, we’ve seen other ex-ministers like Gavin Williamson forced out due to their behaviour around public servants (he allegedly told one to ‘slit [their] throat’).

The fighting goes back further, though. The public briefings against the senior civil service and the anonymous quotes about Conservative ministers mainly started after the Brexit referendum in 2016. The fallout of the referendum created a genuine chasm between the centrist hierarchy in Whitehall and the new political direction of the Government.

One of the reasons is that Brexit was the first time the traditional establishment had lost politically in living memory. The transitions from Major to Blair, or from Brown to Cameron, all maintained a sense of continuity in the status quo. They were merely changes to leadership in an existing organisation. This time though, the civil service establishment felt they were on the losing side of a conflict that really mattered: I remember witnessing in the week of the People’s Vote march a queue of officials outside a senior civil servant’s office all pleading to be allowed to attend (she said yes). It was the moment when—from the perspective of top civil servants—the Conservatives irresponsibly and definitively broke with the neoliberal consensus that had been meticulously preserved since the 1980s.

From an ideological perspective, the political project that enveloped the Government in the aftermath of Brexit was diametrically opposed to senior civil service centrism—the Conservative Party slowly shifted to a more fiscally expansive but socially conservative position, in stark contrast to the fiscal conservatism and social liberalism that defines centrist politics. This is one of the reasons the disputes between senior officials and ministers ramped up after Boris Johnson’s election win; he represented the polar opposite of a supposedly calm, competent bureaucratic centre of power.

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There are broader trends that help explain the increasing tensions too. While Tory politicians call the civil service hierarchy ‘woke’, ‘lazy’ and ‘obstructive’, the Whitehall culture war is a symptom of wider demographic changes—namely, that our ageing political base is increasingly serviced by younger officials.

The median age in the UK is 41 years old, while the average voter is 47. In contrast, the average age of officials in the Treasury is 34 years old, and the median age of the civil service is now 44—the youngest since at least 2010. If these trends continue, then in the next few years, for the first time in history, the average civil servant will be younger than the average citizen they serve.

The full implications of this are unknown, but in Japan (where the average citizen is already older than the civil service), there has been a war of attrition for many years. Some are familiar attacks, including the public sector pension age rising every year, while others hint at our civil service’s future: ministers announcing pay cuts of up to 10 percent and a constant decline in the number of public servants.

In the UK, political priorities are evermore geared towards an ageing electorate, with public sector resources shifting and receding based on those vote-winning projects. We are perhaps starting to witness the strain on our institutions when the wishes of England’s ruling conservative block (asset-rich, semi-retired and non-urban voters) are implemented by younger urban professionals in a distant London postcode. Simon Case, the head of the civil service and the youngest Cabinet Secretary in living memory, is often a lightning rod for these attacks, with Ministers claiming he is too ‘young to take such a big job.’

Such attacks will likely only increase if the age divide grows. It is a divide in Whitehall that is exacerbated by the fact that the UK is the most centralised economy and bureaucracy in Europe. Academic Robin Blackburn coined the term ‘grey capitalism’ to reflect the disproportionate power of pension funds in society’s complex accumulation process; perhaps we are seeing the fissions of an overly-powerful and ageing voter block push the administrative class to breaking point—a crisis of ‘grey government’?

Reform

An obvious solution to the imbalances within the British state would be to challenge the crumbling political structures that maintain this system, target the economic inequalities that underline the system, and enfranchise an ailing democracy that perpetuates it across society. The Tories, however, want to reheat attacks on the public sector by cutting the number of civil servants again.

The fairly predictable revelation that Raab’s explosive exit was a prerequisite for demands for more ‘public sector reform’ shows that the Conservatives are not finished with trying to change the machinery of government in Whitehall. The Tory talk of upending Whitehall is cyclical and often arrives without much action. The Cabinet Minister, Frances Maude, in 2010, wanted to ‘cut the red tape’, with fewer civil servants in Whitehall, and freezes on pay and pensions in line with the austerity agenda. The FDA went on strike against some of those changes back in 2011 and now there are suggestions Rishi Sunak is looking to revive the agenda. There are rumours a new target for civil service redundancies will be announced this summer, as the Prime Minister tries to appease the right of his party after disappointing local election results.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is a case for organisational change in Whitehall though, but it concerns shape rather than size. Much like other parts of the economy, central government is increasingly filled with middle managers. For example, the proportion of middle managers in the civil service has doubled in the last 12 years while the most junior grades have almost halved. Unique events such as exiting the European Union and administrating the response to COVID-19 increased the ranks of these managers (who are younger, predominantly based in London, and are ostensibly represented by the FDA), and their share within Whitehall represents a significant shift in the wider civil service. Such a move towards greater middle management must be balanced with more attention and resources towards frontline services in the public sector too.

As Conservative ministers continue to target the civil service, it is important to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of frontline civil servants that continue to deliver public services every day. They are less visible in the discourse on Whitehall’s culture war and do not receive the same attention as top officials in the media. Despite over 40,000 frontline civil servants using foodbanks last year, there is little coverage of their struggle. It says a lot about the British media that there have been more words written about what kind of tomato salad Dominic Raab allegedly threw at a wall than the fact that 10 percent of frontline civil servants claim Universal Credit.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents all workers in the civil service and related areas, have already taken part in three national days of action since the turn of the year. They are demanding better pay, pensions and job security in the face of further public sector underfunding and historically take strike action far more regularly than the FDA.

The PCS General Secretary, Mark Serwotka, previously argued for a transformative movement within government to radically change the state apparatus for working people. His proposal was to build coalitions with senior civil servants and low-paid staff in order to challenge the increasingly vicious attacks against the public sector. It would require the senior civil service union to acknowledge their common problems and work with him to fight against the coordinated assault. This would need to be the first step in building a coalition across the public sector that addresses the wider political, social and organisational challenges.

The possibility of the senior civil service striking is just one example of the heightened tensions between Whitehall and the Tories over the last few years. The reasons are numerous—political disagreements, economic conditions and social trends—and the underlying causes run deep. Internally, Brexit created a chasm between the senior civil service and their ministers; a younger, more urban administrative class is increasingly removed from the UK’s political base; and the rise of middle managers is potentially re-enforcing the sclerotic nature of the British state. More widely, the disputes reflect the seismic economic and social struggles facing our wider public sector today. Struggles that other workers are confronting and struggles we can’t afford to lose.

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