Today would have been my father Fred Croft’s 70th birthday, had he not died of cancer at 67. I think about him every day, and there’s so much I could say about him, but today I want to talk about how his career as a civil servant inspired me.
The UK has a permanent civil service which supports the government of the day, whatever political party heads it up. Civil servants are employees of the Crown, not the government, and are in principle non-partisan executors of the government’s decisions. They help government ministers draw up laws, give them legal advice, and generally support elected ministers in enacting their agenda. They are there to make the democratic system function smoothly and professionally, and make sure the government follows the law, not to input their own party political viewpoint. Unlike in the US, where many senior civil servants are appointed by elected persons, in the UK senior civil servants are not political appointees but non-political professionals, and they’re supposed to support whichever party wins the election whether they voted for them or not.
This is what my father did. He certainly had his own political opinions - and opinions about the ministers and MPs he served - but he gave them all the benefit of his expertise, even when they were doing something he thought was stupid or wrong. I’ve been thinking recently how profoundly this has shaped my own political perspective. I grew up hearing stories of UK government ministers of all parties: some my dad had affection for, others he thought ridiculous or incompetent. But it never broke down on partisan grounds: he like ministers who were competent, thoughtful, kind, respectful, and good to work with; he disliked those who were arrogant, ignorant, and bullied Civil Service staff - both regardless of party.
He had a fond memory of when, earlier in his career, Margaret Thatcher (then Prime Minister) came out of the House of Commons chamber to apologize to the civil servants who had been waiting many hours - long into the evening - while the Commons engaged in debate. He thought this a kind gesture, and indicative of good character. Likewise, he served for a while as legal advisor to John Prescott (now Baron Prescott) when he was Deputy Prime Minister to Tony Blair, and had nothing but praise for him, as a jovial good-natured man who respected him and his advice. (He had a wonderful story about Prescott once arriving very late to a meeting, staying just long enough to see a platter of sandwiches and exclaim “Oooh! Butties!”, grabbing a handful, and then leaving. My dad was much in favor of this.) Thatcher and Prescott are people of wildly differing political opinions, yet he served them both to the best of his ability, and saw good in them due to their interpersonal virtues.
Perhaps you might think that unprincipled, a sign of lack of political conviction - particularly in these highly polarized times. I see it as a reflection of my father’s dedication to a higher set of principles than one’s own politics: a belief in democratic systems; in the importance of professional integrity; in the value of interpersonal virtues; and in offering the best of oneself, even to those who seek to make decisions you disagree with. I am grateful for the example he gave me of being able to work with people regardless of their political views, finding good in them as people and as colleagues.
I miss my father. I miss his humorous stories about the foibles and fortitude of government. I miss his anecdotes about the titans of UK politics he knew. I miss visiting his office and seeing how much his colleagues respected and enjoyed him. I miss his daily reminder that a life of service to the civil realm is honorable, upstanding, and worthwhile. Happy Birthday dad. Miss you!