By Gavin St Pier
So, (Sir) Gavin Williamson has been forced to resign (again). This time, not for leaking national secrets but for the rather more run-of-the-mill, old-as-the-hills charge of bullying – in this case, of his political colleagues.
No sooner was the ink dry on the Prime Minister’s words of ‘regret’ in his letter responding to Williamson’s resignation, than the spotlight had swung onto the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab. In his case, informal grumblings and discontent from civil servants, extending so far as to give members of the Secretary of State’s private office the opportunity to move out to other roles before he moved back to his, have been followed by three formal complaints, one from each of the last three departments in which he has served as a minister.
Mr Raab’s initial response was to proclaim that he may be a hard task master who expects a lot from his staff, but he’s always courteous and professional. In the 2020s, this might be termed the ‘snowflake (or gaslight) defence’, depending on your point of view. In other words, those complaining, are just a bit too soft to cope with the minister’s very high standards. Any shouting or tomato throwing (allegedly, of course) is not his problem, it’s theirs.
After the first formal complaint, he had little choice but to ask the Prime Minister to set up an investigation and the slightly-less Dishy Rishi had no choice but to agree. And so a taxpayer-funded, expensive and time-consuming process has begun under the leadership of Adam Tolley, a King’s Counsel no less.
During the investigation, natural justice dictates that the axiom ‘there is no smoke without fire’ becomes inappropriate. In the real (non-political) world, Raab might have been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation because everyone in HR will tell you that ‘suspension is a neutral act’. In the political world, suspension would be interpreted, particularly by the media, as a hostile act, from which they would indeed conclude that there is no smoke without fire.
Are these behaviours confined to the hurly-burly of Westminster and Whitehall? Sadly not. Politicians everywhere can be ambitious, driven individuals in a hurry for action as the clock ticks down on the electoral cycle, but that is no excuse for discourtesy or rudeness, let alone bullying, threatening or intimidating behaviour towards public servants or other politicians.
In Guernsey, the media has recently reported accounts of mispronounced surnames and States Members talking openly or leaving the Chamber as colleagues speak. These might otherwise be regarded as accidental discourtesies, were it not for the same individuals being subjected to such behaviours.
At the less severe end of the spectrum, Deputy Lester Queripel’s loquacious speeches, often laced with poetry, are frequently met with discourteous, schoolroom tutting, overt clock watching and ripples of sarcastic applause when he sits down. At the other, one former long-standing legislator allegedly developed a reputation for landing threatening advocates’ letters on the desks of colleagues late on Friday afternoons, so they had the weekend to stew on their alleged misdemeanour.
In this term, threats of litigation have become routine for those in and outside the Assembly, including by the Chief Minister no less, against two poor members of the public who had the temerity to do no more than question his conduct, using the Code of Conduct process established precisely for that purpose. For some, such threats will be treated with the derision they deserve, but many others, less familiar or experienced with politics or legal processes, will be understandably upset by such behaviour.
But the sad fact is, intimidation works. It does inevitably and understandably have a chilling effect and will cause many to pull their punches, taking one step back from speaking up or out for the reasonable fear of being next in line, with all the attendant emotional and financial risks.
One senior leader is reported to have referred in a meeting to a senior (male) civil servant as ‘my bitch’. In another recent case, one Member of the States reported that a senior Member had emerged from a day in the States to tell them, ‘I’m done with you, you little xxxxer,’ apparently for having voted the ‘wrong’ way on some issue, probably of no great significance.
An occasional columnist for a local publication found their work was sufficiently unappreciated by one or more of their elected representatives, that they were hauled into their boss’s office, from which they emerged as a less occasional columnist. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be a woman, with oodles of not-so-suppressed misogyny to contend with on top of everything else.
Is all of this just the rough and tumble of politics in the modern age? Should it all just be accepted as reasonable conduct? Or are such behaviours bullying and intimidating? Each are rhetorical questions, to which the answers should be obvious.
Williamson and Raab’s troubles followed on the heels of similar bullying allegations around the now former Home Secretary, Priti Patel. In that case, Whitehall’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, Sir Alex Allan, said Patel had ‘not consistently met the high standards required by the ministerial code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect’.
Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an unlikely enforcer of the ministerial code, given his own conduct on a number of fronts, chose to ignore the independent report, and it was Sir Alex who ended up resigning rather than Patel.
In light of these experiences and others where permanent secretaries (or chief executives in our case) are sacked without reasonable cause at a healthy six-figure expense to the taxpayer, it is little wonder that most civil servants (locally and nationally) opt to keep their heads down, willing their political masters just to move on next week, next month or at the next election, rather than speak out or complain about politicians’ poor conduct.
It is well known that whistle-blowers often pay a high price for their candour. A likely measure of the severity of the accusations is the fact that any civil servants at all have stepped forward to blow the whistle on Raab. They must have vested all their hopes in the latest Prime Minister, having committed on his first day in office to his government having ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level’, not shying away from sacking Raab, if Adam Tolley reaches similar findings to those in Patel’s case.
They must be hoping what we all instinctively know to be true. Leadership and the right tone from the top are critical in establishing that poor behaviours will not be tolerated and in order to create a safe space for those with grievances to speak out without fear of reprisal. Where that is absent or failing, the bullies will fill the space.
Gavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.