The civil service may be impartial, but it isn’t neutral. Indeed, a world in which civil servants worked in a vacuum, without values, policy expertise or vision, couldn’t be the world that we live in. Nor is it. The civil service will remain broadly committed, whichever party holds office, to a core of policy aims that are unobjectionable, or ought to be. These include maintaining a first-rate relationship with the United States – the “special relationship”, as it is sometimes, not uncontroversially, described.
Kim Darroch has in no way made that relationship more difficult by writing memos that are critical in some respects of the Trump administration. It is the duty of our Ambassador to the United States to give Ministers and others his view, and it is his right to be able to do so in confidence. As journalists, we rejoice in the Mail on Sunday getting hold of Darroch’s memos: they provide a cracking story. But as citizens, with wider interests than journalistic ones, our take is that the leak is bad for Britain. It will make politicians and civil servants alike less likely to tell the truth, as they see it, to both themselves and to each other.
It neither follows that all Darroch’s judgements are necessarily right, nor that the civil service’s instincts shouldn’t be challenged. These are worth a long view. Consider, for example, Michael Palliser – one of a series of Foreign Office civil servants who, during the run-up to British membership of the Commons Market, helped turn the department’s Eurosceptism into Euroenthusiasm. Or Michael Quinlan, the civil service theoretician, at the Ministry of Defence, of nuclear deterrence. Or Charles Farr, the former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who had a particular take on what policy should be towards non-violent extremism.
Examples are endless, and there are more of them since recently-retired senior civil servants have taken to Twitter. Nicholas Macpherson, the former Treasury Permanent Secretary, likes the hashtag #soundmoney. Simon Fraser, a counterpart at the Foreign Office, is critical of the Brexit project. This takes us to the point. The civil service worldview is multilateralist, pro-EU, pro-NATO. There are worse causes to adopt. But the referendum result has exposed a difference between the view of much of the machine and the take of a mass of voters. Particular decisions have worsened this tension. The civil service is responsible for none of them.
It was Theresa May, not the bureaucracy, who centralised Brexit policy, cut DexEU out of it, and made Olly Robbins, in effect, her personal negotiator with the EU. It was also the Prime Minister who brought much of the culture of the Home Office into the heart of government. We have nothing against Mark Sedwill, but senior parts of the civil service have become leaky on his watch: consider the recent briefing against Jeremy Corbyn, whose future was “openly discussed at an event attended by mandarins this month”. It is the job of the rest of us to keep him out of Downing Street, not that of the civil service – let alone for mandarins to brief about it.
Which returns us to Darroch. There is a suspicion that Sedwill, and not Darroch himself, was the real target of the leak. The former is reportedly interested in the Washington post. A new Prime Minister will be in place by the end of the month. Changes at the top of the civil service are expected. The leak looks designed to prepare the way for a replacement for Darroch who is more Trump-friendly than Sedwill. But the disposition of Darroch’s replacement to the President is not the exam question, or shouldn’t be.
There is a precedent for sending a non-civil servant to Washington as ambassador: Peter Jay, Jim Callaghan’s son-in-law, was sent to Washington when the latter was Prime Minister. However, the example is not encouraging. Perhaps Prime Minister Johnson should scour the more junior civil service ranks, and send for one of those who, pro-Brexit Ministers tell us, have put in exemplary work preparing for No Deal if necessary, regardless of their own views.