The Queen was the government’s “Reader No 1” – the first person to receive some of the most sensitive and important government documents. The way she did her duty has lessons for the civil service, says Alex Thomas
During a visit to the Home Office in 2015 the Queen told the hundreds of officials gathered that “even the best public servants cannot hope to be popular with everyone all the time”. The monarch had of course learnt something over the years about the tides of public opinion.
In the aftermath of her death, and as we anticipate an outpouring of public, private, formal and state grieving at her funeral, the Queen has been called the ultimate public servant – and so she was. Impartial, inscrutable, serving the popular will, one prime minister at a time.
But although she was not a civil servant, there are affinities and similarities between these very different public servants – and as the tributes pour in, her 70-year reign offers lessons from one pillar of the British establishment to the other.
The affinities between the Queen and the civil service, though rarely mentioned, run deep. The Queen’s example of public service was an inspiration and motivation for many civil servants. And for some very senior mandarins steering the rough and tumble of government away from the monarch has been a core part of their job. Royalty touches the civil service in all sorts of ways – from shared diplomatic missions, to granting permission for a “Queen’s Head” pub to take its name, to working for Her, or now His Majesty’s Government, His Majesty’s Treasury and His Majesty’s Revenue & Customs.
Both the monarch and the civil service can shape but not control decisions. They have framing power, soft power, to set some of the terms of debate and decision. Institutional scepticism can tease out problems and mean policy decisions are better made. Neither can speak back. And ultimately both are rightly servants of democracy and the law.
But there is a limit to the similarities. For while both the sovereign and the civil service are “impartial”, the Queen’s objectivity was not that of a policy adviser setting out options for a minister, but of the crown, exercising the duty and privilege of the British monarch “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn”. The monarch is the definition of high status, and ministers approach a disagreement with the Palace with trepidation. Sometimes it takes just the raising of an eyebrow to divert an unwelcome ministerial intervention – rarely on policy, more often on process. If a junior minister upsets the Palace in a way which ends up embarrassing the prime minister there are likely to be consequences.
She was a political actor – whatever some of the tributes say – over decades. She tilted government policy on the Commonwealth and made her displeasure clear about, for example, the lack of sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Her caught-on-microphone remarks before the Scottish referendum hoping that “people will think very carefully” about the future were a study in politically charged pseudo-ambiguity.
But where ministers would listen to the monarch, the civil service has not always been given the same hearing – with Boris Johnson's "hard rain" in 2020, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s briefing to the press about civil service management and Liz Truss’s recent sacking of the Treasury permanent secretary all exposing the tensions between politicians and officials. A permanent secretary’s eyebrow is worth less than it used to be. But while the civil service does not have the same room to manoeuvre on impartiality – contained by ministerial control in the way that ultimately no monarch can be – it, and its ministerial masters, can boost their standing by learning from the way the Queen fulfilled her duties and performed her role.
The first lessons is that “values”, for all the mockability of the word, are real and will define a legacy. The Queen’s values are what we celebrate and mourn today. Public service, duty, impartiality, honesty and trust are too precious to sacrifice for short-term expediency. Civil servants should remember that.
Second, that confidence, authority and legitimacy is borne of experience and a deep understanding of the institution of which she was a part. As the tributes this week have shown the Queen’s authority came not from God or birthright but from having been there, accumulated wisdom and then applied it. Few officials could match her time served or sacrifices made, but a fragile civil service, reliant on transitory staffing and without a well of experience will come unstuck.
Third, stewardship. The Queen was a steward of the monarchy and to some degree of the nation, but – despite assumptions sometimes to the contrary – the UK’s current arrangements do not give the civil service a stewardship role. The job description means permanent secretaries do not focus on long term planning, including for catastrophic risks, to the same extent that they focus on the policies of the day. And it is in the job description that a cabinet secretary is limited from stepping in if a prime minister over-reaches on propriety or legality issues. This should change. Stewardship is a responsibility all public servants should be able to exercise with more confidence – but, for now, that is not really how our civil service works.
There is, across the country, immense pride in how the Queen approached her duty. Speaking to the civil service in 2015 the Queen said that “we trust public servants to show integrity, stamina, and selfless duty, as well as essential values such as being fair, keeping one’s word, speaking the truth”. She may have been a very different public servant to those was she was addressing, but the lessons from her 70-year reign should be taken seriously – especially after the last few years of turbulence in His Majesty’s Government.