These Fox-hunters can’t see the wood for the trees

The anti-Liam Fox lobby didn’t stop to ask: what does it say about today’s civil service that many ministers now fall back on their friends?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

According to easily titillated tabloids and Tory-hating broadsheets, Liam Fox has got what he deserved. The Conservative defence secretary behaved improperly, by treating his special friend Adam Werritty as an access-all-areas adviser, and therefore it is right that he has become the first defence/war secretary since John Profumo in 1963 to resign.

Are things that simple? In their rush to get one over on a top Tory, observers have missed what this so-called scandal reveals about the state of the British political system. The Fox affair is not an open-and-shut case of an MP behaving in a way that ‘veered between the eccentric and the scandalous’, but rather is a series of interlocking modern dilemmas – which deserve far more serious analysis than was evident in the Fox-hunt last week.

The politician’s dilemma

There has been much whispering and innuendo about Fox’s relationship with Werritty, but one possible explanation has not been entertained: that Fox kept his confidant by his side because he felt distant from, or disregard for, the civil servants who would normally play the role of advisers to a minister of state.

Fox’s behaviour is not especially odd in today’s context. At a time when the civil service is in steady decline, both in terms of its intellectual wherewithal and its trustworthiness, more politicians are choosing to surround themselves with people they know, even people they love, and thus who they can trust. The modern politician’s dilemma is that the civil service is not what it used to be, its skills of insight and institutional loyalty seriously on the wane, and therefore it becomes tempting to recruit a few familiar faces.

Commentators complain about the growth of nepotism and what they call ‘shadowy networking’ in ministerial circles. But they’re unable to explain why it’s happening, except to put it down to nasty Tories getting ‘jobs for the boys’. One commentator says Fox is ‘not the only Tory with odd friends and a cavalier disregard for the rules’.

Indeed. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, one in five MPs employs ‘close family members or friends’. Things got so bad that in 2009 the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposed a ban on nepotism, but it was rejected by MPs. It was recently revealed that Conservative education secretary Michael Gove has a tiny circle of ‘trusted advisers’, people he knows well, and that he communicates with them through Gmail in order to ‘keep sensitive information from the education department’s own civil servants’. (As a sign of how deep-rooted the modern minister’s dilemma is, this fact was leaked from within Gove’s own civil service.) And now we know that Liam Fox went to extraordinary lengths to make his close friend his top adviser.

Why is this happening today? Because politicians are more duplicitous, or because the civil service that attends to them is now such an intellectually vacuous and leaky entity that politicians feel tempted to look for advice elsewhere? It’s the latter. Today’s so-called ‘shadowy networking’ speaks to a serious level of internal rot in Whitehall, which is now swarming with civil servants who lack both the political depth and sense of loyalty of their forebears. More than ever, there’s a chasm between ministers who want to push through certain objectives and their civil servants who either don’t get or like those objectives, and who feel no compunction about getting one over on their bosses by leaking information about them to the media. Yesterday’s Sunday Times reported that Michael Gove feels constantly ‘at war’ with education mandarins, who offer little more than ‘passive resistance’ and ‘disloyalty’. One political analyst has argued that over the past 10 years the civil service has cultivated ‘a highly developed culture of leaking’.

It’s far easier to slate Tory MPs for acting scandalously than it is to get a handle on why there is such alienation between ministers and the modern civil service. What really motored the Fox affair was not his eccentricities but rather a political culture wherein ministers, under fire from their own civil servants and under pressure to make their every antic transparent, no longer know who they can trust. The emergence of that new political breed – ‘the politician’s friend’ – is a result of the decline in Whitehall of political seriousness, loyalty and taken-for-granted methods of discussing and formulating policy.

The democrat’s dilemma

Then there is the dilemma facing those of us who consider ourselves democrats. And it’s a multifaceted one.

On the one hand, there is little positive about this rise of special advisers, even if it can be explained as a response to the demise of political integrity. Indeed, if the New Labour years are anything to go by (the Tories are far from the only ones who fall back on trusted cliques), then the growth of an unofficial advising class can potentially undermine more democratic forms of debate, by circumventing both the Cabinet and the Commons in the name of ‘policy efficiency’.

But on the other hand, there is something profoundly worrying about the post-Fox demonisation, as ‘shadowy networking’, of anything that takes place outside of the civil service’s accepted way of doing things.

In recent days, some commentators have declared war on nepotism and networking in the political sphere (overlooking the fact that for the British media to accuse others of being nepotistic is a bit like Katie Price upbraiding a friend for wearing too much fake tan). This relentless depiction of close bonds and late-night policy chats as something sinister, as a ‘cavalier disregard for the rules’, could end up making politics even more sclerotic than it already is.

Politicians, like the rest of us, need confidants and contacts; they need people they can trust absolutely to share concerns or thought experiments with. Without that, they risk becoming policymaking robots, playing by the rules, yes, but never doing anything daring or different or likely to upset today’s peculiarly sensitive and media-savvy civil servants. The demand that politicians only discuss policy through Accepted Channels, and on the record, is a demand that they ditch anything like a free-wheeling approach to ideas in favour of doing politics in the same way a local council stuffed with jobsworths does it.

Some are even demanding a register of lobbyists, in which MPs would have to record the details of everyone they receive advice or info from. It is true that professional lobbyists – including greens, nudge-obsessed campaign groups and the child-protection industry – now have a huge influence on ministers. But still, the impact of such a register would be disastrous. It would either make ministers more dull, by forcing them to be ultra careful about who they consult, or it would make them more dishonest, forcing them to have very secretive meetings with friends whom they don’t necessarily want to stick on a public register. How did we get so cynical about the age-old habit of consulting friends and confidants?

So, on one side we have ministers so cut off from the civil service that they develop their own inner circles, and on the other side we have democrats who ought to be worried about the potential for these inner circles to override democratic procedures but even more worried by the treatment of such inner circles as necessarily evil. I told you the Fox affair was more messy than we’d been led to believe.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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