Civil Servants Now Free to Promote Brexit

by ukcivilservant

Keen Brexiteers  have long believed that the senior civil service has been trying to scupper Brexit.  More recently, keen Remainers have become concerned that civil servants have become too willing to promote Brexit ‘propaganda’.  The key change, I suspect, is that civil servants are – in some ways – finding it much easier to work with the Johnson government that with its predecessor.  They should certainly not be criticised for promoting the new government’s Brexit policies.

Civil Servants have three quite distinct roles:

  1. First, they speak truth to power, offering private, honest, advice to Ministers before the latter make policy decisions.
  2. But then, once Ministers have made those decisions, civil servants are expected to help Ministers promote and defend their policies, even if officials advised against them.
  3. Finally, officials are responsible for delivery, implementing Ministers’ decisions on the ground and drafting the necessary legislation.

Whether ‘promoting and defending’ or ‘delivering’, officials must put their doubts (and inconvenient facts) on one side and proactively seek to deliver Ministers objectives, however controversial and unpopular the underlying policy decisions.

Prior to 24 July, it was far from clear when the UK was intended to leave the EU, nor on what terms.  The Cabinet was badly split and there was in particular zero clarity about whether ‘No Deal’ was a realistic outcome.  Officials were roundly criticised for being insufficiently wedded to the Brexit project, whereas the truth was that they were still giving advice (which undoubtedly included worries about ‘No Deal in particular) and were also reflecting the different messages coming from different Cabinet Ministers.

It is much easier now.  The government’s policy is clear.  All Ministers now say that Brexit is a good thing, and that we need to plan and prepare to leave on 31 October with or without a deal.  Civil servants are expected enthusiastically to promote those policies. The only constraints are that civil servants cannot communicate untruths, nor criticise political opponents.

Martin Stanley
Editor  Understanding Government