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Raab’s right about the case against him – but not in the way he means

OPINION: People who cheer as the government threatens to drown refugees can’t abide the idea of a minister being rude

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
21 April 2023, 11.49am

Dominic Raab pictured outside Number 10 Downing Street


Rob Pinney/Getty (image edited by James Battershill)

On the surface, there is something ironic about Dominic Raab losing his job because of bullying allegations. After all, bullying is what this government is all about.

Take any group that has been disempowered by society, and you’ll find Rishi Sunak’s boot stamping on its face. Whether it’s refugees, trans people, Travellers, benefits claimants, homeless people – we could be here a while – the Tories and their pals in the press have spent the last 13 years mobilising both society and the state against the vulnerable in order to entrench elite rule.

But the problem Raab has come up against is the first rule of Britain’s ruling class – which is that you should always be seen to look people in the eye, smile at them and shake their hand, even if you are also kneeing them in the groin. The harder you kick people, the more you have to charm. Talk softly, but invent a special device for crushing the testicles of those who cross you.

You might think, as Raab has said, that feminists are “now among the most obnoxious bigots,” or that “the typical user of a food bank is not someone who’s languishing in poverty, it’s someone who has a cash flow problem episodically”. But you have to be civil to those people if you meet them in person.

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British culture loves a bully, but they need to be of the smarmy, David Cameron sort, or the bumbling Boris Johnson sort, not the brazen Donald Trump sort.

Dominic Raab lost his job – temporarily, I suspect – because he was seen to forget this rule. Tory voters who will cheer as government ministers threaten to drown children in the Channel can’t abide the thought of a deputy prime minister who is rude to people’s faces.

What will happen next is a reframing of the whole affair. Raab’s resignation statement is less an apology and more a declaration of culture war. This isn’t about being polite in the way that Tory voters care about, he says. After all, as he is keen to point out, the report into his conduct concluded that he didn’t shout or swear at anyone. Instead, we’ll be told, it’s about wokery.

Raab would be right about this, in a strange sense. Bullying isn’t about whether or not you say please and thank you, or use rude words. It’s about whether you abuse your power over people. Those objecting to things they perceive as “woke” are objecting to those who stand up to abuses of power.

Despite the mythology of ruling class politeness, actual interpersonal bullying – rather than what you might call failures of etiquette – has been a central feature of the behind-closed-doors workings of the British government forever. As former House of Commons Clerk Jenny McCullough writes in openDemocracy today: “The culture of many public institutions still serves to normalise unacceptable behaviour and victimise workers who object to it.”

What’s changed is that Britain’s 19th century culture of deference has broken down over the last couple of decades. Where our grandparents had ideas of rank drilled into them, both from the mass-militarism of two world wars and the empire, and from the broader class system, the generations currently taking over aren’t arriving with all those assumptions.

Now that millennials, whose parents are less likely to have fought in a war or served in the colonies, are starting to get into senior jobs – including in the civil service – they (we) are less likely to put up with being mistreated by superiors than their (our) predecessors. The Me Too generation of women is, rightly, less likely to put up with workplace misogyny. Workers are, to some extent, less likely to just smile when faced with racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia.

Bullying will become another cleaver for the conservative press. “Snowflake” civil servants, we are told, just “can’t take the pressure any more”

That doesn’t mean bullying is usually held to account. As McCullough puts it: “Only the bravest staff speak out [and] only the best managers back them.” The ongoing fall in trade union membership makes it even harder.

But it is enough to drive crazy those people who are used to misusing their power. We can all think of people who are accustomed to bullying subordinates complaining they have to “be careful what I say these days”.

The right-wing PR machine isn’t going to let Raab go lightly. In 2009, before he was an MP, the dark money funded think-tank the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) launched his book in its offices. Before he was a cabinet minister, he spoke at the IEA’s 60th birthday party. Despite the bruising experience of the brief Truss premiership, it’s still a powerful organisation, and part of a media/think tank/PR industry complex that won’t be pleased to see one of its favourites disappear from government.

And so, inevitably, bullying will become another cleaver for the conservative press. “Snowflake” civil servants, we are told, just “can’t take the pressure any more”.

Like all of the best propaganda, the reframing of the Raab story will draw on some truth. The modern civil service was essentially established by the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854, with the aim of creating a permanent bureaucracy behind ministers at a time when the right to vote was slowly being extended to more people (all of them men). One of its roles since then has been to act as a check on changes good and bad that people have voted for, through any combination of benign institutional inertia, practical, ethical and legal considerations, and reactionism.

Raab’s defence is that he – an elected official – was trying to bring in changes (Brexit; the replacement of the Human Rights Act by the so-called Bill of Rights) that the civil service opposed. This is probably true. (As a thought experiment, had Jeremy Corbyn been elected, his ministers may too have faced complaints from some civil servants when they tried to implement the radical agenda that they had been mandated to deliver.)

But that whiff of truth will be mixed in with a whole set of toxic ideas about how bullying is acceptable, officials standing up to it are somehow weak, and how the powerful are the real victims of the modern world.

And we can’t allow those ideas to stick.

Updated 21 April 2023: This article was amended to clarify our characterisation of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, which did largely create the modern British civil service but also widened access to the profession.

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