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A bullying politician: which matters most – the means or the end?

November 21, 2020

Let’s talk about bullying. A drill sergeant screams in the face of a young recruit, showering them with saliva. Is this bullying? A group of footballers surround the referee to protest at a decision that doesn’t go their way. Is this bullying? A teacher sneers with contempt at a kid who gets an answer wrong and humiliates them in front of the class. Is this bullying?

I know a lot of people who would answer each question with “yes, but”. They might follow the “but” by saying it happened to them and it didn’t do them any harm. In fact, it toughened them up. It taught them to be resilient, to accept criticism and to get it right next time. It made them the person they are today.

Often as not, if someone who is bullied stands up and resists, there are consequences, not usually good. The new recruit is probably sent off to clean the toilets. The referee sends someone off, or complains to their professional body. Either way, they risk being accused of being weak and unable to control the match. The kid can tell their Mum and Dad, who complain to the school. The kid, at least in their imagination, risks being picked on by the same teacher again, or getting a reputation among their schoolmates of being thick as two short planks.

Now consider the government minister who cajoles and belittles her senior staff, all of them presumably well-qualified and experienced people, with the result that one of them collapses, possibly as the result of stress and overwork. What are the consequences for them? Loss of employment, damaged reputation and even, it seems, damaged health.

Is Priti Patel a bully, or can she be excused on the grounds that she was so committed to her work that she failed to notice that she was turning her subordinates into gibbering wrecks?

She might smile wryly at the story of Timur, the all-conquering founder of the Mughal empire, deciding to build a huge mosque in Samarkand. Since he was away campaigning, he put two overseers in charge of delivering the project. When he returned, he was horrified to find the the main portico was too small for his taste. He ordered it rebuilt and executed the overseers in spectacularly grisly way. Pour encourager les autres. The twist in the tale was that although the mosque was magnificent, it started going to pieces almost from the moment of completion. Worshippers were constantly on their guard against falling tiles. We’re never told what happened to the architects and builders, but one can guess.

All of this begs a question: what is the dividing line between bullying and forceful leadership? Can anyone who has led people look at themselves in the mirror and say that they’ve never been guilty of what others might perceive as bullying? I certainly can’t.

Perhaps the line is between attacking the person, which often considered to be bullying, and criticising the behaviour, which isn’t. In those terms I’ve probably kept on the right side, though perhaps not everyone who has worked with me would agree.

But of this I’m sure. Whenever I’ve got hot under the collar about a person’s behaviour or performance and let the person see my anger, whether in private or in front of others, I’ve always felt myself a lesser person for allowing myself to do so.

There’s also a difference between someone loved and respected losing their cool, and someone for whom sarcasm and abuse is a standard modus operandi. If your parents tell you off, do they do so in a manner that convinces you that they still love you? Or do you endure a childhood of cold parenting, which causes you to acquire many layers of passive resistance to protect yourself?

I know very little about Priti Patel, but from what I do know, I can well imagine that when trying to impose her will upon the self-assured mandarins who work for her, but don’t consider that they really work for her, she has felt insecure and frustrated, which is why she has lashed out on occasion. As a result, to use a favourite football term, she’s lost the dressing room. Brian Clough and Leeds United come to mind.

If I wanted to be unkind to her, I would say that she reminds me from afar of the head teacher of an indifferent English private school who sweet-talks the parents at an open day, and when the doors are closed returns to her unenlightened ways. She might say that the parents don’t much care about her behaviour or her standards of education, only that that she sends back their offspring prepared for a life of dull conformity that is unlikely to result in them going bankrupt or being sent to jail.

It’s not difficult to find mitigating circumstances in her defence, mainly around the culture of her department, the Home Office, its recent history and the divided loyalties as an institution of the civil service. She might also claim in her defence institutional racism, misogyny and class prejudice.

She might feel that she was surrounded by incompetents, as evidenced by her department’s past failings. But were those failings – the Windrush scandal, the hostile environment policy and the failure to control immigration – the result of the failings of the civil servants, or those of the minister under whose watch most of these mistakes occurred: Theresa May?

And then we come to the Comey question. To whom do those civil servants owe their loyalty? To Priti Patel (or in James Comey’s case, Donald Trump)? Or to the institution of the civil service (or in Comey’s case, the constitution)?

The answer in British terms would probably be to the duly elected government of the day, whose chosen officer is Priti Patel – though always subject to the rule of law. But what if that officer is asking them to implement policies that they think are ill-advised or possibly even disastrous? In that case, they’re supposed to offer their advice, and if it’s not accepted, to bow to the will of the officer, their minister.

If the minister bullies and cajoles, the civil servants have rights under employment law, which explains why her previous head of department, Sir Philip Rutnam, is suing the government for constructive dismissal.

In giving a view as to whether Priti Patel should have been dismissed for her behaviour, I have to be careful to override my personal and political views. I do not like bullies, and I have never supported the Conservatives.

But looking at her case, I’m convinced that she should go because she has shown a character failing that makes her an ineffective minister. To retain her would be to condone behaviour that under the vast majority of circumstances does not allow teams to perform at their best. If she can bully people and get away with it, so can we all. Just as Dominic Cummings helped to destroy the consensus of compliance that had built up during the first COVID lockdown by his stupid trip to Barnard Castle.

When a football manager loses the dressing room, the consequences are that the players underperform, undermine team morale with their grievances and start talking to their agents about moving to another team. And the team starts losing matches that they should be winning.

Fairly or unfairly, deservedly or undeservedly, inadvertently or not, Priti Patel appears at one stage to have lost the dressing room. Even if she’s recovered it, when the chips are down, she’s likely to do so again. It’s a matter of character, not just performance. Boris Johnson should not wait until the tiles start falling from the roof.

It’s also a matter of zeitgeist. Behaviour that might have been acceptable a thousand, a hundred or even fifty years ago is no longer acceptable today. Whether that’s cause for regret or celebration is irrelevant. It happens to be reality, at least in the United Kingdom, even if it’s not part of the learned experience of politicians who grew up on the playing fields of Eton

Which is why she should go.

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