Opinion: It's civil servants who'll deliver Brexit. Keep them out of the political trench warfare

In his latest column for the FDA’s Public Service Magazine, General Secretary Dave Penman takes “Brextremists and Remoaners” to task for scapegoating civil servants


As the realities of trying to deliver Brexit start to bite - laying bare the incoherent and contradictory positions of both government and opposition - the scapegoating of the civil service has begun in earnest. Perhaps it was always going to be thus, but it is no less disappointing for its predictability.

Through the inevitable cycle of crisis then breakthrough, played out too often to suggest a Machiavellian strategy, each episode was either the fault of those wily Sir Humphreys manipulating the poor Jim Hackers, or a failure of the civil service to abandon its impartial role and expose the government's failures for all to see and deliver us from the evils of Brexit.

Disentangling the UK from 40 years of EU membership was always going to be a Herculean task for the civil service. To stand any chance it needed greater resources, new areas of capability and crucially, clear political leadership. Whilst the FDA has been banging on about the resources and capability gaps, the truth is the greatest risk to a successful Brexit has been the failure of political leadership. A minority government gripped by a series of self-inflicted wounds that cannot agree with itself, never mind the party it relies on for its survival, is no recipe for the clear and strong leadership needed.

The party in government is tearing itself apart and HM loyal opposition is equally divided, even if it is better at hiding that fact as it smells blood in the water. Post-election talk of a cross-party commission to oversee the Brexit process, and build a broad consensus at a time of deep division, has foundered on the rock of partisan political ambition.

The Brextremists and Remoaners have developed into opposing cults, lambasting those that do not support their one true belief. Following the soap opera of Priti Patel's resignation, the main qualification for her replacement appeared to be which cult they were a disciple of, demonstrating once again the ability of Brexit to suffocate the broader agenda of government.

Amid all of this chaos, the civil service has been getting on with its job, working quickly to establish two new departments and coordinating people and policy in a way many had assumed it was not capable.

Contrary to populist belief, civil servants have relished the challenge, regardless of their own political preference, because that is what being a civil servant is all about. Underpaid and under-resourced, they continue regardless, working tirelessly to deliver the best possible outcome for the UK.

Maybe we shouldn't expect those who cannot conceive that kind of non-tribal commitment to understand. Their world is dominated by trenches from where they lob their cynical, vindictive insults blindly at any perceived enemy. Trench warfare is not about making progress, it's not about finding solutions - it's warfare for the sake of it.

So, whilst insults are hurled and individuals who are unable to respond are publicly vilified, civil servants will be concentrating on trying to solve the latest crisis created by the country's political leadership. Because that's what being a civil servant is all about.

Dave Penman is the FDA’s General Secretary and he tweets as @FDAGenSec