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Who decides what counts as ‘political’?

Government demands for public sector ‘neutrality’ uphold a harmful status quo. For civil servant Sophie Izon, it’s time to speak out

5 to 6 minute read

I work in Parliament where, like other public sector workers, I am bound by a contract of ‘political impartiality’. This applies not only to our work, but we’re also prohibited from participating in certain civic activities like signing petitions, engaging actively in a political party, attending protests and posting political opinions on social media.

The point of the impartiality clause is that the work of staff who serve politicians should not be affected by their own political beliefs. This makes sense – some staff work for members across the political spectrum. I also understand the need to protect workplaces from defamation. Deciding what counts as ‘political’ and calls for ‘neutrality’ are, however, wrapped up in questions of power.

Black Lives Matter: a partisan issue?

When the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement made a resurgence in summer 2020, it was unclear whether we were allowed to attend demonstrations. As someone of mixed Afro-Caribbean heritage, the idea that I couldn’t march in support of Black lives was demoralising.

Then, Parliament came out in support of BLM. Emails from senior management promised that they were ‘listening and learning’. It was as if they, like the heads of other organisations, had only discovered the true extent of racism in 2020. As part of this listening exercise, colleagues of colour were invited to discuss concerns and experiences. So I sent back an email, raising the very issue of political impartiality. I never received a response.

Only after the main swell of the protests was over did we receive confirmation that we could have attended. An internal communication confirmed that the principle of political neutrality ‘should not prevent colleagues from participating in non-political events which align with the Administration’s values’, including ‘a Black Lives Matter march, or the Gay Pride event’. The statement begs the question: who gets to decide what counts as ‘political’? Either way, the designations have power – either to silence or to sideline.

The idea that BLM and Pride are non-political fails to reckon with history. Parliament and the civil service may want to be inclusive, and this gesture appears to be trying to straddle a desire to uphold values of diversity and inclusion while complying with the age-old neutrality clause.

Yet, BLM isn’t just about agreeing that Black and non-Black lives are equally worthy. It’s about dismantling systems of oppression, including police and prisons. BLM is a political statement, even if some people claim it is a human rights issue, not a partisan, political one. There would be no need for BLM if Black people weren’t disproportionately targeted by the police. There would be no need for Pride if being gay hadn’t been prohibited by the state, or trans rights weren’t under threat. The point is that when your identity has been politicised, all you can do is to rally against the system that politicised you.

Political neutrality and the status quo

Desmond Tutu said: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’. The requirement of political neutrality is used as a tool for maintaining a harmful status quo.

Political movements, by their very nature, seek to raise consciousness about how and why the status quo must change. These movements spring from the policy choices of the powerful – policy choices that decide that some lives matter more than others.

The administration’s line on BLM suggests that they don’t see social justice and liberation for Black people as political. It appears that they are trying to have their cake and eat it: support Black colleagues without engaging with the uncomfortable truth of the racism built into our political systems.

A similarly incendiary event took place late last year, when the Government published guidance advising schools not to use ‘resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters’ – including taking an anti-capitalist stance. As widespread criticism highlighted, such a prohibition would be an affront to freedom of speech. Ironically, opposition to free speech was also included in the government’s list of extreme positions, along with racism.

Such scaremongering conflates ideas that challenge the status quo with systems of oppression. As John McDonnell MP commented at the time, following the advice would make it ‘illegal to refer to large tracts of British history and politics including the history of British socialism, the Labour Party and trade unionism’. Of course, we are unable to tackle racism without understanding how capitalism upholds it.

A divided society

As politics has become more polarised, the concept of political neutrality strikes me as even more absurd. Especially during the pandemic, that it would endanger my job to tweet that poor children don’t deserve to go hungry, for example, feels shameful.

Blocking internal criticism, especially within an institution whose very purpose is to be transparent, accountable and democratic, is deeply troubling. A particularly egregious example occurred before the 2019 general election, when certain NHS trusts imposed tighter restrictions on staff to try to stop them from bringing attention to the fragile state of our health service. NHS workers said they felt the instructions were ‘oppressive’.

At the heart of it, the concept of political neutrality is based on the myth that politics comes down to a friendly difference of opinion, rather than decision-making that has real life consequences. In his book Who Killed My Father, Édouard Louis writes: ‘For the ruling class… politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us it was life or death.’

It is worth remembering that the concept of a politically neutral civil service harks back to the nineteenth century, when the institution was dominated by straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class, cis-gender men. It is unlikely they felt upholding the status quo to be a matter of life or death – at least not for people like them.

In order for government bureaucracy to be truly inclusive, we must reconsider its political neutrality clause. In order to do so, we must reckon with the fact that the very identities of the staff members they are trying to include have been politicised. Public sector workers should be able to engage publicly with politics, and our insights used to help inform the public.

As this prospect is a long way off, it’s important to hold onto the ways in which public sector workers can engage with politics, without compromising our positions. We can write articles under a pseudonym, as I have done here, or tweet from an anonymous account; we can write to our MPs and sign petitions without displaying our names. And we should remember that, in the UK, whistleblowing is also protected under the 1998 Public Interest Disclosure Act, even where a non-disclosure agreement has been signed.

Sophie Izon is a pseudonym. The author works in the civil service

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