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The Windrush debacle and the establishment bluffing all the way to a scandal

The 'Empire Windrush' arriving from Jamaica, 1948. (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images) - Credit: SSPL via Getty Images

Bluffocracy – the new book which has Britain’s political class abuzz – chronicles how the country’s establishment has been taken over by chancers. In the final part of our serialisation, authors JAMES BALL and ANDREW GREENWAY examine the Windrush debacle

Members of the Windrush generation. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images) – Credit: Getty Images

The effects of loading up Britain’s boardrooms and cabinet table with generalist bluffers are not always subtle or indirect.

The skills and values that our institutions prize can have a big part in shaping their most obvious public failures. One such case is the scandal around government attempts to deport people who arrived legally to the UK – the so-called Windrush Generation – as a result of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy.

The scandal unfolded almost as an archetype of how Home Office scandals take place. The deportations of people legally in the country happened as a foreseeable result of a deliberate policy to challenge people as they rent property or access public services, which was introduced by Theresa May when she was home secretary. The government had received multiple warnings through the media – if not leading front pages – and private consultations with MPs and others, which had gone largely ignored until it became a much bigger story ahead of the meeting in London of the Commonwealth Heads of Governments.

Even then as the scandal hit the front pages, it remained survivable for then-home secretary Amber Rudd – she had merely been implementing the policies brought in by her predecessor. But then she made the classic mistake: either by going in front of MPs under-briefed, or through a simple misstatement, she denied that the Home Office had targets for removals. After failing to tamp down the scandal with a rapid and full retraction of her statement, Rudd was brought down once it became clear she had indeed been aware of – and had even written to the prime minister about – such targets.

Working out what really happens in such departments is rare, as few people talk in the middle of such crises, and during them people are often most interested in protecting themselves or their minister – but it is possible to talk through after the fact how such events unfold in general terms.

Someone who had extensive first-hand experience in the Home Office is Jane Furniss CBE, a former senior civil servant who went on to lead the Independent Police Complaints Commission and who now sits on the board of the National Crime Agency. She set out in an interview how such crises could come about as a result of how the department recruits, recognises and promotes talent. Furniss noted that in the ‘core’ departments, such as the Home Office, Treasury, Foreign Office and others, promotion would generally come as a result of hopping from policy area to policy area – leading to ingrained short-termism in what is supposed to be the long-term bureaucracy supporting government.

‘You may not have to move physically, but moving areas to know a wide range and practice your skills in those different subjects is seen as necessary and to be encouraged,’ she said. ‘The danger of that is very often people don’t see the damaging consequences or the benefits of what they did, because they’re no longer in that subject area when the shit hits the fan, or the success arrives…

‘That has real consequences for how people learn about the consequences of the work they do. The recent Windrush debacle highlights that: the architects of the hostile environment policy are probably no longer in that area of work at all, and even if they were warned of consequences they will have been focused on delivering the policy – they won’t be there when it comes home.’

She said that these kinds of backlashes aren’t infrequent – they’re an ingrained part of the system: because the top of the civil service is structured around supporting ministers, prestige is found in moving around as what ministers want changes, rather than sticking with a specialism. Nor is this an accident; high-level dilettantism is government policy, and has been for many decades. Giving evidence to parliament in May 2018, Oliver Dowden, minister for the Cabinet Office enthusiastically confirmed that he wanted permanent secretaries to be hired for their leadership skills, not their subject knowledge.

‘All sorts of time I’d see people work on huge policy areas that were a priority for ministers – police and crime commissioners, or crime prevention, and so on – none of the people who worked on that policy and the legislation that underpinned it, or those authorities, are anywhere near it now,’ she said. ‘The corporate memory and the analysis of did it work, they’re not asked those questions.’ The bluffers have moved on somewhere else. So have the ministers. So have the journalists covering that beat.

Furniss concluded the civil service’s approach of prizing cleverness and flexibility above all else built a different culture than other public services, such as police or the NHS. ‘These do attract people who are not wedded to a particular skill, service or policy area – contrast it with the cops where people go in, many more people in the police and health service commit to their role for life,’ she concludes. ‘In the civil service you get heavily involved in depth into a narrow area, then you drop it and move to another one. I think that does appeal to a different kind of person to the person who works steadily away in one field.’

Because what is most valued is what directly supports and advises ministers – especially if it gets them out of a crisis, management and other skills fall lower down the pecking order. Someone in the Border Agency could manage 500 staff and a large budget but not be counted as senior civil service, whereas someone managing virtually no staff, no budget, but writing policy papers may enjoy much higher internal status. The same hierarchy applies to tax, welfare and defence. And crucially, if something goes wrong for a staffer in an operational agency like the Border Agency, they ‘will never, ever meet the home secretary,’ Furniss notes. ‘Someone else will brief her, while they will be getting the blame for it.’

Overall, across government, even the most senior specialist officials get sidelined from the most senior grades of the structure. In some departments, they are stuffed into ‘grade four’, in civil service parlance, a rank which is technically in the top flight, but which rarely leads to further promotion. Grade four is the loose sock drawer of the senior civil service; a place where those who have essential brains but lack the faces that fit go. ‘People like the chief medical officer, significant experts in their fields – chief scientist, too – research, scientist, medics, lawyers, are all very often grade four type roles,’ she says. ‘Because that’s the only way they can categorise them, and it takes them out of the ladder – and very, very few of those people get back on to the ladder up to the next grade again.’

The culture of the civil service still under-rewards management, hand-holds unwitting specialists into peripheral advisory roles, struggles to hire large number of graduates with science and technological backgrounds, and contributes to the short-termism which fuels many of the policies which then backlash, either against those they are intended to help or against the ministers in charge of implementing them – or both.

The structure of the UK civil service is quite particular to the country – few other places have managed to pick up all of its quirks – but other aspects of government which favour bluffers are more internationally standard. One such trait is ministerial amateurism, which sees huge swathes of the UK left in the hands of people with no experience of that sector. The average tenure of a UK cabinet minister is around two years and four months – but many have moved around far more rapidly.

Take Sajid Javid, who joined parliament after a career in the City. Within a four-year period, he was shifted from a role as City minister – a role clearly suited to his expertise – to minister for equalities, to secretary of state for culture, media, and sport, before being shifted back to a role he would appear more obviously qualified for: business secretary. Qualification was not, of course, enough to save Javid from politics. When Theresa May became prime minister following Brexit, Javid was demoted to the role of housing, communities and local government secretary – only to be promoted up to home secretary (despite never working in criminal justice) to defuse a political scandal.

That’s six different roles within the space of four years, the longest of which lasted 15 months, the shortest of which a mere three. Each shift is months of on-the-job learning, as well as disruption to the special advisors, ministerial priorities, and other upheavals. Plus, when everyone concerned knows shifts will be based on simple politics, there is even less focus on the long-term than there otherwise would be.

A problem the UK shares with many other countries, though by no means all, is the limited pool from which it draws – while few would sing the praises of the expertise of Donald Trump’s cabinet, the US system is far more open to outside experts taking roles. US cabinet secretaries are not drawn from Congress, making it far more possible to hire lifelong experts in their field to run departments: foreign policy roles can draw from top academic international relations projects, for example. The system also, generally at least, leads to longer tenures: the average US cabinet secretary works for around a year longer than their UK counterpart.

Beyond these issues lies a once-in-a-generation political crisis of confidence: the loss of trust in mainstream politics, and a corresponding rise in populism and support for anti-establishment views. Elsewhere across Europe this has directly manifested itself in surging support for far-right parties – Marine Le Pen finished second in the French presidential race, while the far-right AfD party polled close to 15% in the German elections.

For a variety of reasons, including the first-past-the-post electoral system, the UK has not seen a similar surge in direct support for far-right parties – aside from the extremist and anti-Muslim Britain First party, which became the largest UK party on Facebook with two million Likes, despite having zero elected officials.

The obvious manifestation of anti-elite sentiment in the UK, though, is Brexit: despite the overwhelming majority of elite opinion, plus leaders from the three biggest political parties, the country narrowly voted to leave – after a slickly-produced but shallow and largely dishonest campaign which focused little on the realities of leaving the EU, instead promising £350m-a-week extra funding towards the NHS, supposedly from money saved on EU payments.

These promises were rebutted by the official UK statistical watchdog, by independent fact checkers, by frontbench politicians, and by huge swathes of the mainstream media, including the BBC. Why, then, did they still connect so well with so many millions of voters? If we’re honest, we’ll never have a definitive answer, but it certainly can’t have helped that the Remain campaign was somewhat out-of-touch, or that the referendum campaign came a decade into a pay
freeze for the nation, and six years into

But it also cannot have helped that the public had got endlessly used to hearing the in-game focused language of the bluffer coming from politicians, the media, and lots of the think tanks and expert bodies too. After years of having to parse the intellectual non-denial denials, evasions and rhetorical tricks that come with the bluffocracy, the public could easily be forgiven for having had enough, for losing trust in all concerned.

Politics still works in an outdated form of communications, where the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility – that all ministers must be bound by all decisions made by the Cabinet – has been pushed to an unrealistic extent. In the modern era, virtually anything any politician has ever said can be looked up by anyone with an internet connection in just minutes, whether in the chamber or on any TV or radio appearance.

And yet politicians are still expected to go out and earnestly defend a policy which there is years of evidence that they either never really supported, or even actively opposed. Briefed by their advisors, or by Number 10, they dodge questions about their previous opinions and listlessly detail the merits of the policy.

The interviewer knows full well they’re talking nonsense, the person speaking knows they’re talking nonsense – and a reasonable chunk of the audience will quickly work out they’re speaking nonsense. This is a tired ritual that has no need to continue: why should the public trust politicians when the rules of public life require them to speak dishonestly almost daily? Who benefits from this endless ritual – and would the British political system really collapse if a minister said ‘I didn’t fully agree with this policy, but couldn’t persuade enough of my Cabinet colleagues of my view, and I’m happy to go with their wisdom on this issue. It’s worth it for all the other excellent work this government is doing’?

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