Latest Public Sector News

18.04.17

Brexit, populism and public service

Source: PSE Apr/May 17

Chris Painter, Professor Emeritus at Birmingham City University, examines recent political shocks and their implications for the context in which public servants operate.

Few signature public governance or public service reforms are so far associated with the Theresa May premiership. Reviving expansion of selective grammar schools is one of the few identifiable examples. Modest plans to re-prioritise housing in a dysfunctional market and for upgrading of technical education because of anticipated skill shortages are the only other measures that readily come to mind. Notwithstanding rhetoric around the importance her administration attaches to domestic reform, a stark reality is that Brexit becomes all-consuming following the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.  

Questions about Whitehall’s capability and capacity to successfully manage this challenge arise. Does the Civil Service possess the skills and competencies for the forthcoming negotiations in all their complexity? Drafting a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ that will convert EU law into UK law and related legislative changes alone represents an enormous undertaking. 

As the Institute for Government’s 2017 Whitehall Monitor report noted, budget cuts since 2010 have meant that the number of civil servants is smaller than at any time since the Second World War. Additional monies allocated by the chancellor to the Foreign Office and new Brexit departments in his 2016 Autumn Statement provided scant consolation. Exactly the same predicament is faced by local government in adapting to changing circumstances. 

The outcome of the EU Referendum provided just the first sign of political tectonic plates moving, judging on the result of the US presidential election. The fall-out from Donald Trump’s flurry of executive orders provided a test for the robustness of that country’s constitutional safeguards. 

Eager eyes in 2017 switched to the mainland European elections in the Netherlands, where the far-right in second place did less well than many expected yet with support for mainstream parties also waning, and those forthcoming in France and Germany for signs of populist contagion. 

Explaining political turmoil  

Labels for these new political forces include radical/alternative right as distinct from mainstream right. ‘Authoritarian populism’ is another one: assertive leaders capitalising on the electorate’s fears and insecurities.

Most emotive is the ‘neo-fascist’ tag. Key elements of Trump’s election platform – economic protectionism, public works and attributing social ills to minority groups – form basic ingredients of that ideology, although in his case obviously without pre-1945 militaristic and totalitarian trappings. Shades of the latter can nonetheless be detected in appeals to ‘the will of the people’ as a means of closing down political argument. The SNP’s surge in Scotland in the 2014 independence referendum and subsequent 2015 UK general election demonstrated that there are also left of centre anti-establishment populist movements. 

So, to address underlying causes of political instability: 

  • A recent trend for weak income growth to hit living standards, pre-dating but compounded by the global financial crisis of 2007-08;
  • Facilitated by information, communication and digital technologies, with self-employment business models adopted by companies disruptively capitalising on the ‘gig economy’ and creating a new precariat (employment practices which are the subject of the independent Taylor Review set in motion by May);
  • Accentuated by robotics and artificial intelligence, threatening white-collar, not just lower skill, occupations;
  • Superimposed onto which were austerity policy choices on spending, tax and benefits, since 2010 in the UK disproportionately affecting those least able to withstand the consequences (either socioeconomically or geographically);
  • All occurring within an increasingly globalised economy, inward migration further destabilising labour markets and rewards going to a minority of footloose global players;
  • Leading to re-emergence of identity politics, thriving on nationalist rhetoric and symbols;
  • In the service of which were deployed sophisticated data analytics targeting receptive voters on social media sites, algorithms also manipulated to generate an online information architecture supportive of particular ideological narratives. 

The decade since 2007-08 indeed has uncanny parallels with the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash during the 1930s, if with less extreme manifestations. 

Although academic texts have yet to catch up with the pace of political events, including those in the public management field, Andrew Gamble of the universities of Cambridge and Sheffield, in his 2014 book perceptively entitled ‘Crisis Without End’, highlighted how the 2007-08 financial dislocation and its sequel were symptoms of deeper structural problems. Failure to challenge the political economy assumptions prevalent since the 1980s added to a growing sense of turbulence. 

Political zealots and public service values     

Public service funding became bound up with this structural inability to re-establish conditions for sustainable economic growth, the proceeds of which are fairly shared. Despite ever less plausible claims that cuts of the magnitude imposed since 2010 could largely be achieved through delivery innovation, the Treasury is seeking an additional £3.5bn of ‘efficiency savings’ by 2019-20. Yet increasing demand relative to growth in resources is taking its toll on the NHS. Social care and the prison service were in critical condition. Local authorities increasingly struggled to discharge even statutory responsibilities. Trouble is also brewing for core school budgets with real-term falls in pupil funding.  

Crisis followed by modest emergency spending injections has therefore become a recurring pattern on May’s watch since July 2016; partly new money funded by additional revenue measures, but also re-phased/re-allocated spending and often earmarked for designated purposes. And the austerity timetable has been extended. May’s period at the Home Office from 2010-16 ostensibly showed how cuts could be absorbed without much detrimental impact: headline crime rates little affected by reduced police resources. Even disregarding evidence to the contrary from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, this position looks very different once cybercrime is taken into account, as the police service struggles to adapt to changing patterns of criminal activity. 

This is all against the background of a Brexit effect which may well make re-balancing of the public finances even more problematic over the medium as distinct from near term.

Political instability has wider implications for public servants. ‘Hard Brexit’ zealots driving the political agenda over the past 12 months create a hostile environment for the independent, informed and candid advice that is the folklore of the UK public service tradition, notwithstanding bureaucratic turf wars. Concerns were hardly assuaged by the Civil Service Commission’s relaxation of recruitment rules for Brexit-specific appointments. A ‘politicised’ Civil Service becomes a more tangible threat when opinion is polarised than where consensus exists on fundamentals. 

Tensions surfacing in Whitehall over Brexit negotiations in fact revived memories of the disaffection of some senior officials in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and because of the same disregard for evidence-led strategy. It is a syndrome even more alarming for the Washington bureaucracy following the change of presidency. 

Nothing set in stone 

Will populist platforms continue to have potent political appeal, shaping public discourse accordingly? Firstly, there is the doomsday scenario. Populist leaders, by raising expectations they cannot fulfil, bring even more economic dislocation, disillusionment and extreme outcomes. Alternatively, those leaders double-up on provocative behaviour to deflect attention from their failures. Either way, this constitutes an existential threat to liberal democracy, with high stakes for the UK’s territorial integrity because of the eventual prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum. 

In a second scenario, an established trend for voting patterns to fragment as traditional party allegiances weaken becomes more pronounced, political support realigning along multiple fissures as exemplified in the recent Dutch elections. It would mean the UK moving further away from a previously dominant two-party system – though currently England, Scotland and Wales paradoxically exhibit many of the characteristics of one-party states, albeit each with their own distinctive complexion. 

A third scenario contests the view that immutable structural determinants are at work. Whilst context is an inevitable constraint, human agency has influence over the direction of events, not least the strategic prowess of mainstream political leaders in (re-) positioning their parties. In the early 1960s commentators queried whether there could ever again be a majority UK Labour government. Then along came Harold Wilson! The same scepticism returned in the early 1990s. Along came Tony Blair! In the 2000s similar predictions were made about the Conservative Party. Then along came David Cameron’s success! Or mainstream views are successfully promoted afresh from outside established parties, a distinct possibility in the French presidential elections.   

The Brexit premiership   

With Cameron remembered as the austerity premier, his successor, essentially an English provincial conservative, placed herself at the helm of a Brexit ‘counter-revolution’. Riding the populist wave, a contradiction nonetheless appeared at the heart of May’s strategic vision. 

Embracing Industrial Strategy and a more interventionist state, she simultaneously threatened to turn this country into a deregulated haven if the EU acts against the UK’s commercial interests during Brexit negotiations. Such a business model would create even deeper dilemmas for the funding of public services. 

One thing is for certain: our public servants are in for a bare-knuckle ride. Not least the post-1945 architecture of multilateral institutions, based on shared rules, is under strain from a resurgence of nationally-driven power politics in the international arena. 

On the UK’s contribution to this unfolding instability, the last word is appropriately left to one of our leading contemporary writers. In ‘Keeping On Keeping On’, Alan Bennett reflects on the outcome of the EU Referendum: “I imagine this must have been what Munich was like in 1938 – half the nation rejoicing at a supposed deliverance, the other half stunned by the country’s self-serving cowardice. Well, we shall see.”

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