Who runs the United Kingdom? Is it the country’s democratically elected government or is it the nation’s labyrinthine civil service, a more genteel British equivalent of the autocratic “deep state”? In the 1980s, the Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher certainly thought it was the latter group, believing that more power rested with the titled mandarins domiciled in Whitehall than any number of prime ministers temporarily resident in Downing Street. It was with good reason that her favourite television show was said to be the biting BBC satire, Yes Minister, which focused on the hapless efforts of a careerist politician to overcome the self-serving machinations of well-bred bureaucrats.
That opaque culture, it seems, is still the norm in the governance of Britain, with reports that Sue Gray, a senior – yet deliberately clandestine – civil servant, is on her way to the UK’s colonial holdout on the island of Ireland. Sam McBride, writing in the iNews, describes how the:
…“secretive” and ultra-powerful Whitehall civil servant has been appointed to run a devolved department in Northern Ireland, in a move which has fuelled speculation that the government may be considering implementing direct rule after a year without devolution.
As the DUP and Sinn Féin re-entered talks today, it was announced that Cabinet Office official Sue Gray – who has been described as “the most powerful woman in Britain” – is to be appointed to permanent secretary of Stormont’s Department of Finance.
Much remains unknown about the 60-year-old, who in the 1980s took a strikingly unorthodox career break to run a pub in Newry, a hotbed of IRA and security force activity.
In 2015, BBC Newsnight’s policy editor Chris Cook described Mrs Gray as “the most powerful civil servant you’ve never heard of” and “also perhaps the most secretive you could ever hope to meet”.
He said that she had “astounding” influence and was “notorious for her determination not to leave a document trail”, adding that “even when a document trail exists, Ms Gray is enthusiastic about keeping it a secret”, advising special advisers of how they could destroy emails to thwart potential Freedom of Information requests.
Officially, Gray served as the Director General of the Propriety and Ethics Team and Head of the Private Offices Group, working closely with the top-tier Cabinet Office. Which makes her sideways, and arguably downward, transfer to the UK’s backwater administration in the Six Counties all the stranger.
Of course, London may believe that Britain’s chaotic withdrawal from the European Union will make Belfast a very important place to be in the near future. Requiring very important people. Certainly some observers are assuming that this is the real motivation behind her application for the job at the otherwise shuttered Stormont. On the other hand, the high-flying official may have other reasons for seeking refuge across the Irish Sea, as the inept Tory government stumbles from one managerial crisis to another, with long knives hidden behind every back.
Whatever the case, yet another representative of the United Kingdom, with a rumoured dislike for transparency or democratic oversight, will get to play at regional government in the UK’s troublesome overseas colony. Which should cause disquiet to all interested parties there.