The row over Treasury forecasts — and the FBI v Trump saga — show how often unelected officials overstep the mark
Last week saw political eruptions on either side of the Atlantic about a similar issue: whether government officials are neutral. The row over the leaked forecasts for Brexit, and whether civil servants were being partisan in preparing and perhaps leaking them, paralleled the row in America about the declassified Congressional memo on the FBI and Donald Trump. “Trump’s unparalleled war on a pillar of society: law enforcement”, said TheNew York Times. “Brexit attacks on civil service ‘are worthy of 1930s Germany’ ” said The Observer.
To summarise, in London a government forecast that even a soft Brexit would be slightly worse for the economy than non-Brexit was conveniently leaked. This happened just as some politicians and commentators were trying to shift the country towards accepting a form of customs union with the European Union — that is to say, not really leaving at all.
In Washington, the president declassified a memo prepared by Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee. It alleged that the FBI got a warrant from a secret court to bug a Trump campaign executive, using as evidence mainly a “salacious and unverified” dossier (the former FBI director James Comey’s words) prepared by a British ex-spy paid by the Democratic Party, a fact that the FBI apparently failed on three occasions to tell the court. The FBI also allegedly leaked the dodgy dossier to the press.
There are two sides to both stories. In Washington, the Democrats and some Republicans see a president prepared to break secrecy to make the FBI look bad, presumably as a distraction from its investigation of his alleged links with Russia. In London, Remainers focus on the fact that it is unusual and wrong for politicians to attack civil servants who are not allowed to answer back.
Nobody disputes, surely, that civil servants have views. Since 91 per cent of Washington DC voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and a similar percentage of public servants here probably voted Remain, we can guess what those views are in most cases. Former mandarins in the House of Lords and on Twitter are among the most outspoken opponents of Brexit in any form. In the FBI case, several key people (including the British ex-spy, Christopher Steele) are on record as having been passionately opposed to Mr Trump’s election.
To read Matt Ridley’s piece for The Times in full, click here.