Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Why we need our Sir Humphreys

The civil service is always going to have a tough time of it. Politicians sell their ideas to the public, they then take the power and instruct their respective departments to implement their ideas. The politicians proposes, the civil service disposes. But it it not the role of the civil service to simply do as instructed. Part of their role is to make ministers aware of why things are the way they are currently and the overall direction of travel. When you factor in these things, the superficially good idea you sold the public on turns out to be less than sensible or wholly impractical.

One such example is the closure of RAF Scampton, home of the Red Arrows and the Dambusters. Naturally voters are emotionally attached to it and with six hundred people employed locally in an area that can't afford to take the hit, the local MP will inevitably stick their oar in, especially when there's a petition with thousands of signatures (see illustration). But then as blogging civil servant "Sir Humphrey" points out
"While the closure of RAF Scampton has led to complaints about ‘idiot bean counters throwing away our national heritage’ or other such helpful views online, you have to take an objective view about what is gained from keeping the base open. To support a single flying squadron plus ground support units in isolation generates a large bill for life support services, support staff, airfield services (e.g. ATC and fire/rescue crews) and significant duplication of effort. 
There is nothing unique about Scampton from an operational perspective – it is one of many airbases in use by the RAF which has a runway, some support facilities and a proud history. The only real issue that relocating the Red Arrows poses is finding somewhere with enough airspace to permit the team to practise their manoeuvres without disrupting flying operations (e.g. it probably wouldn’t make sense to send them to RAF Valley or Lossiemouth). The land-based elements can easily be moved elsewhere, and collocated, helping provide long term savings.
There is inevitably sadness at losing a site with strong links to 617 Squadron, the Dambusters and ‘that dog’, but equally the site reportedly needs substantial investment, is no longer used by a front-line squadron, and is one of many RAF sites with a strong and proud heritage. This does not mean that it needs to be retained as an active airbase – indeed it is likely that in its new guise, the public are more likely to see the historical parts that really matter than they are now.
He further remarks "It is common at times like this to see people go ‘what on earth is the MOD doing’ why doesn’t it sell X instead – those idiots don’t know what they are doing’. The reality is that estate planning is a really complicated business at the best of times and relies on people with a great deal of understanding on the complexities, not just of the estate, but wider defence planning too.

"These sites were not acquired under one coherent plan, but instead piecemeal over generations, particularly during times of conflict, and often under different means of acquisition, ranging from purchase to requisitioning. There are many complicated covenants and issues to do with land use and disposal that may prohibit some developments or require others to be cleaned up to specific standards (there are many tales of RAF airbases requiring complete refurbishment back into farmland if sold, hence their remaining open)".

Says Sir Humph "There is also the usual argument ‘we’ve run out of bases as they’ve closed them all down now’ which is utter nonsense. Even after the closure of RAF Scampton and Linton-On-Ouse, there will be plenty of airfields across the UK with a defence aviation presence. Some may not be full time RAF airbases, others may be emergency landing grounds (such as the former RAF Leuchars), but they still provide a range of places to operate from. Frankly, given the reduced size of the RAF, and the increased capability of its aircraft meaning fewer diversion airfields and other support facilities like weapons ranges are needed, a strong case can be made for even more consolidation and closures.

"This may not sit comfortably with those who want to see as many RAF bases open as possible, but to Humphrey the issue is simple. Every pound spent on running an RAF base is a pound less for running RAF aircraft. It ties up manpower that could be used elsewhere and it adds little to operational capability and enabling the RAF to keep this nation safe through enabling airpower to take to the skies. Ruthless and merciless efficiency is what is needed here, not an overly-emotional idea that because back in 1945 when we were fighting a total war in a battle for national we had hundreds of airbases, we somehow need to keep them all open now. What matters most is the aircraft, the weapons and most importantly of all, the people".

I recall reading this article at the time of publishing and as a major aviation nerd it could just as easily be aimed at me. I am saddened to see RAF Linton on Ouse go, but he's not wrong. He remarks elsewhere that;
The MOD challenge for many years has been managing an estate that is fundamentally a legacy estate – if you look at the sites used by the RAF and the other services, they all seem to have one thing in common which is that they were usually WW2 era (or pre-dated WW2) and that they’ve been in near continuous operations since then. The author is struggling to think of (and would delighted to be corrected on) a single RAF airfield built from new since WW2. 
What this means is that for decades the MOD has had far more airfields than it has realistically needed, and which probably haven’t been used to the most economic effect. While in the early Cold War this made eminent sense, as quite literally dozens of airfields needed to be available as dispersals for the V-Force in the event of war. Similarly, with larger (and far less capable) aircraft fleets in service, there was a need for a large training and support pipeline, which in turn led to requirements for a range of sites in use. Finally, the very real threat from the Warsaw Pact drove requirements for dispersed sites where interceptors and other aircraft could be dispersed to in order to ensure a full defence of the UK could be mounted. One only has to look at the size and structure of the RAF in 1990 to realise how extensive and challenging the air defence & strike requirements were back then. 
But, times have changed and the challenge today is not about defending the homeland, but about mounting operations at a long distance from home. The threat from air attack to UK airbases is almost non-existent, and there is no need to disperse a V Force anymore. Similarly with only two fast jet fleets in service, and both eventually becoming single seat aircraft, the need for a large training pipeline is much smaller than before. While many of these sites remained open, they consumed scarce funding to keep the airfields to an operational standard. Its not just a case of putting some tarmac down and letting planes fly off it – airbases are expensive and challenging to operate safely and effectively. This authors very personal view is that in a time when capability is about deployment, it is better to invest in a small number of high quality facilities used to best effect, than spend precious resources maintaining large numbers of legacy sites that may not be used fully.
This very neatly demolishes all of the arguments I used to make which is what made it such a pleasure to read. I held a strong opinion on something which was comprehensively wrong (probably not for the first time) and now I can go about my business without being cross about it. If only our politicians could do likewise.

I've chosen this example, though, because it's fitting with a great many Brexit issues. We have seen an era of rapid change in technology with radically different geopolitical circumstances where there is no room for nostalgia and costly self-indulgence. But then there's politics. We can't afford to get misty eyed about things but we do.

Voters have been persuaded we can "take back our fish", with the Brexit Party retailing the line we can rebuild our coastal towns and revitalise the industry. On my list of things that are not going to happen, that comes somewhere near the top. The industry has seen radical advances in technology and working practices and there simply isn't a way back to how things used to be.

No doubt the DEFRA civil servants have told their ministers who will now be reluctant to come clean about what we can realistically expect. There is a gulf between the public expectation (cynically manipulated by politicians) and what is realistic and deliverable. This perhaps best explains our disaffection with politics.

An effective minister is one who knows how to listen to their officials and manage public expectations. Successive ministers have come a cropper making promises to get immigration numbers down only to find their ill-informed interventions are useless. It doesn't matter how hard you bang on the table. Civil servants are not miracle workers nor do they respond well to threats and bullying from the likes of Patel and Cummings.

The worst outcome for the civil service is if they are bullied into burying their professional expert opinions. We need them to push back because it's part of the job. If then, politicians end up with egg on their faces then the lesson there is that politicians need to think more carefully about the promises they make and take the time to inform themselves before promising the moon on a stick. Being though, that the politicians have been caught out do many times, they continually scapegoat the civil service. It's the oldest trick in the book and it plays well with small state conservatives.

The bottom line is that governing and statecraft is no easy discipline. There are complex matters with multiple overlapping considerations where the political impetus is often misguided and even flat wrong. This is not helped by a malicious media that sells papers by stirring the pot, very often deliberately misinforming their readers. The Telegraph and Daily Express in particular.

Since the media is not an honest actor, and politicians are more invested in saving their own hides, it is more important than ever to have a strong civil service capable of asserting itself in the national interest. Brexiteers would have it that this amounts to sabotaging Brexit, but then what we're dealing with is a particularly obnoxious government deep in the grip of a groupthink, harbouring obsolete ideas with the potential to do enormous harm, failing utterly to comprehend the scale of the consequences. Obviously we can't have a civil service calling the shots but we pay them to be the experts on statecraft and it's foolish not to avail ourselves of that valuable resource.

It has been argued in recent years that ministers have become inert apologists, often spending most of their time explaining why things can't be done instead of getting things done, and restless voters want to see evidence that something, anything if necessary, is being done, especially in sensitive circumstances such as Pakistani grooming gangs. In those such circumstances, voters are rightly not interested in the sociological nuances. They have every right to demand it stops - by any means necessary. That is where we need effective leadership. 

This, though, is where we have been deprived of effective leadership for so long that we've forgotten what it even looks like. Sending in the wreckers and the bullies is not leadership. It's political yobbery and has zero chance of succeeding. To get the best results from the civil service we need to respect it as an institution, stop scapegoating it, and stop pretending there are simple solutions. You can replace your Sir Ivans with IEA toryboys, and you can bring the institutions into ideological alignment, but sooner or later you have to deal with the world as it really is when the self-delusions of politicians will not be enough to see us through.

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