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Opinion

John Bird: A new broom for a very old service

Boris Johnson promises a New Deal on work and education. But maybe it’ll take more than a reworked civil service to deliver such a bold aim

In the course of things I like to pretend I am living in the 1950s. I know friends who pretend they live in the 1980s, resorting to relistening to the music and viewing the old TV programmes. And others who relive the 1970s. As you grow towards middle age and beyond you may need the comforts of idling for a while in former times. Times that might bring you comfort.

Recently I have had the joy of meeting people reliving the 1990s as if they were a golden time. I am sure soon we’ll have the first years of our decade described by some as a time of lost innocence and the music will be played obsessively to rekindle those ‘magic years’.

I think the desire is often based on the need to go to times when things seemed simpler and more assured. When the world beyond our bedroom and front door was unknown and mysterious.

Will we look back on the lockdown in golden terms? I know that already, as it gets lifted, a simplicity and certainty of human good expressed everywhere seems to be diminishing. That we might be heading to more of the same. That lockdown and the heroic efforts of the NHS may have created a sense that everything was possible. But that may well prove as illusory as our childhood desires for wonder and wellbeing to continue forever.

One of my tricks to rekindle the 1950s is to read crime novels from that time. They are so loaded down with all the class furniture of those times. Servants (though decreasing), caring old ladies in the street, a reverence for the royal family. Old tea shops, and old manners, and some of the better classes coming down, having dressed for dinner, to the dining rooms of their own homes.

One of the most constant figures of that time was the ever respectable, unchanging, grey figure of the civil servant. The man, always a man, who got the same train from the shires or suburbs each day, had The Times folded under his arm, and had a rolled-up umbrella.

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But was also, we knew, steady and reliable. Was solid as a rock; and was unchanging. Was indomitable but not likely to embrace new ways of doing things.

We will need to get rid of a political and social system that Covid-19 underlined as decayed and not even quaint

The revolutionary Margaret Thatcher had big plans to topple the bluff, unchanging bureaucrat from his plinth when she came into office in 1979. She needed a new kind of civil servant who did what they were told. Who completely mirrored her desires to see the UK transformed from an ailing industrial nation into something more in keeping with the times.

We are reminded of her radical desires over the last few weeks as we watch Boris’s determination to do the same thing 40 years later. A recent cartoon in The Daily Telegraph shows Boris, Cummings and Gove pulling down a statue of the boring old civil servant, referring of course to the recent attempts by BLM to change the present by getting rid of the effigies of the past.

The Johnson administration doesn’t want the old, staid, Remainer-dominated leadership of the civil service. It wants something more conducive to Brexit and how government needs to be done in our new times.

It’s interesting the amount of new administrations, both left and right, that always start by trying to reform the apparatus of delivery, as the civil service has traditionally been seen as providing. The input is the government and the output, seemingly, is what the civil service deems to be ‘acceptable’.

So Boris is no different from others who have managed to win an electoral majority.

Will he succeed where others have failed? Even Maggie had to resign herself to not getting the civil service she desired. Is it necessary? Are Cummings and gang, as seen by the government’s critics, really barking up the wrong tree?

The 1950s still had many of the values and appearances of pre-war Britain. It still smacked of the old-fashioned. It was still running its empire, renamed the Commonwealth, and rounding up freedom fighters and executing them in Africa. It was still homophobic in tooth and claw. It was still a place where little working-class boys were beaten in public. It was still a time of oppressive class divide. Perhaps not the right decade for a soul to idle in after all.

Much though has changed. What a change. But not big enough it would seem. As well as getting rid of the effigies of oppression and racism, we will need to get rid of a political and social system that Covid-19 underlined as decayed and not even quaint. You might call it the ‘time of self-interests first’.

Now we will have to all pull together and concentrate on avoiding the damage done to the UK by the hungry ’30s and the unemploying and seemingly uncaring 1980s rolled into one. Boris has promised us a New Deal on work and education, a levelling up. As a way of showing that the world has changed big time post-pandemic. That we are not going back to the old speculative, dividing life of wealth piled up in one corner and poverty in the other.

I want to hold government to that promise. I do not want to carp at them for their limitations. I just want to hold Boris to that promise. Perhaps they might need more than a new civil servant to achieve that. They might need a new Welfare State. And a Beveridge-scale solution to the deluge of homelessness and unemployment bearing down on us.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue

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