How I became a ‘woke’ villain with treacherous views too heretical for civil servants’ ears
Kenan Malik/ The Guardian:
When I speak to civil servants next month about my book Not So Black and White, it will be, according to former home secretary Priti Patel, “an extraordinary betrayal of the voters who elected us to take back control of our borders in 2019”.
The meeting is organised by the Open Innovation Team, a government unit that engages with academics to see how their research might feed into policy. It was interested in my work on the history of ideas about race and identity and the ways in which that history could illuminate contemporary social issues.
Not everyone appreciates such an approach. Last Thursday, I became the villain of a Daily Telegraph gotcha article. Headlined “Academic who described Suella Braverman’s immigration views as ‘odious’ to address civil servants”, the “exclusive” by Steven Edginton condemned the invitation, given my criticisms of government policy.We’ve been here before. In May, chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta was disinvited from a government conference after a trawl through social media “identified materials that criticised government officials and policy”. It emerged that secret guidelines on the vetting of external speakers had been drawn up by Jacob Rees-Mogg and that others had been banned, too. The subsequent furore led to the guidelines being scrapped, though promised new rules have yet to be published. In writing about the Kaszeta case, I mentioned my own invitation, jokily hoping that Rees-Mogg didn’t read my Observer columns as I might face a similar fate. I have not been disinvited, but the Telegraph (whose journalists apparently do read my column) clearly wants me to be.Many conservatives, including ministers and Telegraph journalists, are not shy of presenting themselves as champions of free speech. So how do they justify censorship in cases such as Kaszeta’s and mine?
The civil service, many argue, is supposed to be politically neutral and should exclude political speakers. Free speech does not apply here. This, though, is to confuse two issues. Certainly, civil servants are required to give impartial advice and to implement ministerial decisions, irrespective of their own political views.Political neutrality does not mean, however, that wider political debates be ignored. On the contrary, the ability to give good advice requires one to connect with a broad range of ideas and critically assess them.
The insistence that critics of government policy should not address civil servants is an argument for officials to inhabit echo chambers. If only those supportive of, or at least not openly hostile to, an administration’s programme can give talks in Whitehall, that itself is to impose a political test.
Much of the discussion of this issue is framed by two contradictory fears. One is the belief that the civil service constitutes “the Blob”, part of the “liberal elite” imbued with intransigent hostility to conservative policies. The other is the fear that civil servants are such weak creatures that listening to someone like me would place them under my political spell.
These two viewpoints are linked by the common insistence that failures of government policy have nothing to do with either the government or the policy. It’s this that feeds Patel’s claim that my talking to civil servants would constitute a “betrayal of the voters”. I will not be talking about immigration. But even if I were, it’s not me who has failed to “take back control of our borders” but politicians such as Patel, and her predecessors and successors at the Home Office. If there is betrayal, that’s where it lies. The charge that, by speaking to civil servants, I, or Whitehall officials, would be betraying voters is a clumsy attempt to deflect from politicians’ responsibility for their own policies.The immigration system lies broken largely because the government has turned a manageable situation into a crisis. Over the past decade, the asylum backlog has risen about 15 times faster than the numbers claiming asylum. The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, all but acknowledged that this was deliberate policy when he rejected faster processing as a solution. “If you process claims quickly,” he claimed, “that just encourages more people to come.” The problem facing the Tories is that, while they view immigration as a critical “wedge” issue, their solutions are designed more for show than for effectiveness. Even if the government wins its supreme court appeal over the paused Rwanda deportation scheme, it will make little difference. The Rwandan government has said it can process up to 1,000 deportees during the five-year trial period. That would make barely a dent in the asylum backlog.
Having rammed the Illegal Migration Act through parliament earlier this year, the government is now delaying its full implementation because to do so would mean thousands more in detention. And the latest calamity on an immigration barge should not hide the fact that even were the government to organise the scheme effectively, it would scarcely reduce the numbers currently in hotel accommodation. Little wonder that 80% of Tory voters have no confidence in the government “stopping the boats”.