Article - Maintaining normality

Life in Westminster at present is, for obvious reasons, rather surreal. Quite apart from the Brexit elephant that dominates the room, there are all sorts of strange events happening - including more elections per month of various different kinds than anyone would normally expect. 

But one of the most surreal things of all is actually the rather comforting fact that, behind the scenes, all the normal things that get done by government departments are still being done in a relatively calm and orderly way. Of course, everyone doing them knows very well that things aren’t really quite normal; but they are doing a magnificent job of carrying on as if nothing much was happening that is out of the ordinary. 

To take just three examples from the health arena, work is continuing on how to tackle the problems caused by anti-depressant drugs, the difficulties of providing adequate social care for the frail elderly, and the need to reduce obesity. 

I have recently been involved in discussions about all three of these - and have found myself participating actively in these discussions. Rather as if one goes to the theatre when one has a toothache and the pain disappears temporarily at the height of the drama, only to return when the curtain comes down, it is actually possible for politicians and civil servants and various assembled experts to discuss important long term issues such as these in a way that makes one momentarily forget the enormous challenges currently facing the body politic in our country. 

This is, of course, a very good thing. All countries go through difficulties of one kind or another at various times in their history - and part of being a successful country is the ability to deal with crisis in a resilient manner, which means being able to keep things in perspective and to keep orderly systems progressing in an orderly way even in the context of significant disorders. 

But these experiences have also prompted me to reflect on the little noticed fact that we are actually blessed with a civil service capable of continuing to maintain normality in the face of the abnormal.

I have often found myself thinking that we undervalue our civil service. We tend to take its propriety and it’s intelligence for granted, and then to complain about the fact that it isn’t fleeter of foot, or more commercially savvy or things of that sort. But there is no basis for thinking that it’s very considerable merits of decency and probity and fundamentally good intentions are things that can actually be taken for granted. There are plenty of countries around the world which would give almost anything to acquire civil service with these characteristics. So we should definitely pause to give some thanks where thanks are actually due. 

This, in turn, prompts the reflection that the proper operation of a modern country depends on enormous numbers of people going about their business in an orderly and decent way day to day. Many of these, of course, are doing all sorts of very necessary things in various different kinds of enterprise or voluntary body. But we depend, also, on the millions of our fellow citizens who are employed in the various public services who are way beyond the civil service itself and these, too, we are frequently inclined to take for granted. But they, like the civil service, continue their work from day to day through political crises without turning a hair. And for that, too, we really should be more thankful.