- Alan Smith is obstructed by the Civil Service
Readers may remember that the April 2019 issue of New Directions contained my article, ‘Europe and Japan,’ in which I contrasted the decision to move the May Day Bank Holiday in 2020 to 8 May to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day in 1945 with the implicit decision not to move the August Bank Holiday in 2020 to either Friday 14 August or Monday 17 August to mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day in 1945. This was another example of the Establishment attitude, which may be summarized as follows:
‘The Second World War, 1939–45, was an event in which the United Kingdom and her Allies defeated the oppressive regimes of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. At the same time, there was some fighting in the Far East but we don’t like to talk about it.’
The purpose of this article is not to reiterate the argument of my previous article but to spell out the difficulties in getting Her Majesty’s Government to reply to the argument in that article.
The first step in raising an issue with the Government is to write to one’s MP. I wrote to my MP but, because MPs don’t like to correspond with people who are not their constituents, I also asked a number of friends to contact the MPs for their own constituencies. I do not intend to mention the names of my friends. Neither do I mention the names of MPs, Government Departments, and civil servants because I do not wish to pillory particular individuals and departments but to highlight a malaise at the heart of the government machine.
One friend wrote to his MP as follows:
‘The government has published a proposal to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day with a bank holiday. Surprisingly the government has no proposal to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VJ Day with a bank holiday. Perhaps Her Majesty’s ministers think that the Second World War ended in May 1945 or perhaps they know that it ended in August 1945 but couldn’t be bothered to commemorate the anniversary of VJ Day. Whether through ignorance or indifference, this is an insult to those who fought and those who died on the allied side in the Far East during the Second World War.
I have relatives, since passed away, who fought on our side in the Far East and a dear friend whose father died in a Japanese POW camp.’
His MP replied, forwarding the following message from a government department:
‘Thank you for your letter dated 29 April to [Minister’s name], on behalf of your constituent, [constituent’s name], about the early May bank holiday 2020 and an additional bank holiday to commemorate VJ day. I am replying as this matter falls within my Ministerial portfolio.
I would like to thank [constituent’s name] for taking the time to write. The Government regularly receives requests for additional bank and public holidays to celebrate a variety of occasions. As you may be aware there is a process for moving the date of a bank holiday or adding a bank holiday through the Banking and Financial Dealings Act. Any changes to bank holidays will be announced by the Government in advance to give people sufficient time to prepare. Details of UK bank holidays can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/bank-holidays.
I hope this clarifies the Government’s position on this matter and that this information proves useful to you in replying to [constituent’s name].’
To even the casual observer, it is clear that this reply is not an adequate response to my friend’s question: why should VE Day and VJ Day be treated so differently? I am reminded of the story of the two civil servants in a car who were lost in the country. One asked a passer-by: ‘Where are we?’ He received the reply: ‘You’re in a car.’ The civil servant turned to his colleague and said: ‘That was a reply in the true tradition of the Civil Service. It was brief, accurate, and conveyed no additional information whatsoever.’
MPs should not act simply as postal clerks directing incoming mail to the right ministry but should check first that the point being made by a constituent is valid. Having done this, they should check that the Minister’s reply is a valid answer to the point made by the constituent. The volume of mail received by MPs, particularly with email, may be a problem but inadequate scrutiny of ministerial replies is not the answer.