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Angela Tilby: Mandarin ideal is one of service

05 May 2023


WHEN I passed the Civil Service exam for entry as an administrative trainee, my parents were delighted. To them, it meant a job for life, a good pension, and excellent prospects for women.

What I remember most about the exam itself was a long exercise in comprehension. The task was to summarise a dossier of facts and figures, estimates and analyses, about future road-building policy, and then to make a recommendation, as though to a minister.

It was a fascinating exercise. It introduced me to what the Civil Service then was at its senior levels: a class of “mandarins”, analytical thinkers, set aside to produce policies in line with the priorities of the government of the day. The most important quality, apart from high intelligence, was detachment, impartiality. Civil servants were there to make policy work, whether they agreed with it or not.

Since then, the whole notion of a “mandarin” class has come under suspicion. Quite rightly, the Civil Service has sought to expand its outreach, to recruit talent beyond the public schools and Oxbridge, and to seek greater diversity of background and experience. In the process, traditional mandarin values of continuity and impartiality have themselves come under question. Is it really possible for people of high intelligence and a strong work ethic to subsume their own beliefs in the national interest? And, even if they attempt to, surely they will always be unconsciously biased by their own privileges? Yes, Minister showed all too clearly how to run rings round well-meaning but less able politicians.

Recent spats between civil servants and ministers suggest that today’s civil servants are more opinionated, more politicised, and more likely to work overtly against policies of which they disapprove than they once were. On the other hand, Dominic Raab and others have complained of badly drafted papers, sometimes misspelt and ungrammatical. There do seem to be genuine problems with today’s Civil Service which are hampering good government. Perhaps it is a question less of intellect than of values.

I never took up my civil-service post, because I realised that I did not have the right temperament. I went to the BBC instead, where I found deadlines, drama, and instant results more congenial. But I have never forgotten the civil-service entry process, and the qualities of mind among those whom I met. Patience, diligence, and objectivity are real virtues. The capacity to work for ministers with whom one disagrees is a form of service which can be costly and stressful.

So, while I see the problems, I retain a sneaking respect for the mandarin ideal, not least because it brings coolness into our overheated, over-politicised world. The detachment that goes with it also resonates with me, as a very particular and much needed expression of the Christian ideal not to be served, but to serve.

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