A defence of Priti Patel

Claims that Priti Patel broke the Ministerial Code and the resulting furore have exposed one of the greatest problems facing modern politics. No, not the widespread bullying of civil servants by ministers. But rather a systematic breakdown in the effectiveness of the fundamental ideals of liberal democracies.

We politicians have for years increasingly outsourced political power to various incarnations of an unelected establishment: civil servants, bureaucrats, experts, committees and quangos. In so doing, we are giving away something that is not ours to give, effectively disenfranchising the voters. 

Political power is owned by the electorate and only lent to their representatives for a few years at a time. Yet to an ever greater extent, decisions are not made by politicians and thus the decisions made by voters are not implemented. In many Western countries it hardly seems to matter what people vote for, the agenda stays pretty much the same. In my country of Iceland, the last time we had a change of government the majority of bills presented for the first year of the new government were inherited from the previous one. All, no doubt, written and often initiated by civil servants.

Of course this is not entirely new. Yes Minister, with its central theme of the civil service running politicians, first aired over forty years ago. But things have steadily been getting worse. Many politicians are now primarily focused on getting through each day without saying or doing something that might be considered controversial. Much better to let others make the decisions or ponder over the issues indefinitely. The term 'political decision' has a negative ring to it, while decisions made by experts are seen as positive, even though the experts in question may be much more dogmatic about the issue than the average politician.

As a result the establishment runs the country while politicians are left to perform as actors in the political theatre. There everything is based on image and adapting it to the latest zeitgeist while tarnishing the image of competitors.

Politicians from different parties can debate issues of substance and ideology fiercely and remain the best of friends. But if the field of battle is identity politics and personal image, political discourse becomes nastier, more personal and much less effective.

Of course, media representation has affected this, not to mention social media. Ultimately though we politicians have ourselves to blame here. The civil service and experts are immensely important for a democracy in providing advice and implementing policy. But for the democratic system to work, elected representatives must make the decisions and take the consequences.

To make matters worse, politicians have been busy downgrading their own profession. In democracies we are not the most popular of professions and probably never were. That fact is a healthy reminder that those who wield power (at least in theory) need to face more criticism than others. But in our image obsessed times many politicians have tried to tap in to the perpetual mistrust of their profession by encouraging it. They promote the view that politicians are usually up to no good and therefore must be constrained as much as possible.

After the great financial crises, setting codes of conduct became all the rage. Such a superficial response was much easier than correcting systemic faults. Certainly politicians (and people in general) should strive to be respectful and courteous. They should adhere to what parents teach their children about good manners rather than a code of conduct.

Yet we now see how the Ministerial Code has, in the way it is implemented, become arguably yet another means of neutering politicians and keeping them in line at the expense of administrative efficacy.

It is worth asking whether the use of ‘the Code’ is sometimes influenced by the subject in question. Priti Patel has not been afraid of sticking to her principles. As Home Secretary, she has tried to implement these even when they go against the 'correct think' of the time, particularly on live wire issues like immigration. 

As such, she is hardly a darling of the establishment. Even her facial expressions have landed her in trouble with the media and political opponents. Patel has been criticised for having a 'pantomime villain smirk'. The BBC was forced to issue an apology after Patel was accused of laughing during an interview on Brexit, later conceding that Patel was not 'smiling' but displaying her 'natural expression'. Would this have happened to another politician? Or are such things more likely to count against someone like Priti Patel?

It seems unlikely that a minister more at ease with functioning as a de facto spokesperson for the in-house policies of his or her ministry would have been hit over the head with the Code. Even if that person had made a habit of cursing and screaming at underlings every time the coffee was too cold or when an unflattering picture appeared in a newspaper (rather than getting frustrated with policies not being implemented, as seems to have been the case with Patel).

Of course, ministers should behave respectfully to the people who are working for them. Usually when someone shows behaviour that could be reasonably characterised as bullying it´s a sign of insecurity. Given that Priti Patel is unafraid to go against the grain on difficult issues she doesn’t seem lacking in self-confidence.

But the job of a minister can be a frustrating one. If all you hear are the reasons why things can’t be done rather than solutions, if you have repeatedly asked that changes be made to a bill you are about to present and you get the same text every time, that can be trying. Some may momentarily lose their temper. Officials should not regard that as bullying. 

One has to wonder what will happen when students leave the 'safe spaces' of today’s universities having gotten used to telling their teachers what they can and cannot say and start working in government. I also wonder whether Margaret Thatcher ever said or did anything that might have made someone feel bullied by the modern establishment definition of the word. Or Churchill? 'Extra, extra, prime minister Churchill accused of raising his voice and using inappropriate language! Investigation pending'.

We should not devalue the word bullying as has happened with so many words that are needed to discuss serious and important issues. And let’s also remember the true meaning of the word ‘democracy’.


Höfundur:  Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, formaður Miðflokksins

Greinin birtist í The Spectator þann 25. nóvember, 2020  (sjá hér)