Both my parents were state school-teachers. They loved their jobs, worked hard, were paid solidly but not spectacularly (and definitely not what my father referred to as the “decent whack” of others in the private sector) and enjoyed a certain status in the community.
My sister was a nurse. A friend’s father was a senior fireman. Down the road, by the playing fields where we would kick a ball, was a row of police houses – accommodation for police officers.
Those who worked for the state mixed cheek by jowl with those who did not. The former traded whatever ability they had to earn more in return for a guaranteed standard of living and pension, and for the reward of helping others.
They were afforded respect by those who lived alongside them and used their services, and by their bosses at Westminster. At school, there was no shortage of pupils choosing a career in some aspect of the civil service, and they did so in the knowledge they would be treated well.
Contrast that with now, where public sector workers are striking, having had their pay frozen for three years from 2010, followed by a below-inflation 1 per cent since then. Earnings are just one of the issues forcing industrial action – pensions and an increased workload are also behind the walkouts.
More stoppages are planned. Is the Government bothered? In public, it’s condemnatory. At Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron said the time had come for legislation introducing a minimum turnout for a strike ballot, adding it would be in the Conservative manifesto. On Newsnight, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said schoolchildren needed to be protected from "essentially politically-motivated industrial action".
In private, ministers are delighted. The strikes, which are bound to be unpopular and cause huge inconvenience across the country, can be portrayed as the work of Labour, a vivid reminder of the party’s close links with the trade unions.
You can sense their joy at what they see as a gift for the forthcoming general election in Cameron’s assertion that curbing union powers will be included in the Tories’ pitch, and Gove’s description of the industrial action as “politically-motivated.” The more disruption, you can hear them saying behind closed doors, the better.
The hypocrisy is breath-taking. Since 2010, MPs’ pay has risen 2 per cent, from £65,738. From April 2015, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority recommends it to be increased to £74,000 per annum, and "indexed to changes in average earnings in the whole economy thereafter". MPs’ pensions receive employer contributions more than four times higher than the equivalent payment by companies into final-salary schemes, and they are not under any threat.
This divide, however, is symptomatic of a wider malaise. Ministers think they can get away with applying one standard for civil servants and another for themselves because they can. Likewise, they believe they can turn the industrial action into a political issue, and effectively blame Labour and its allies for the strikes, because they can.
The state sector has become a whipping boy, an institution there to be targeted and beaten. It’s the one section of the workforce that the Government has any control over, and their policy has been to exercise that hold, but not in a positive, motivating, encouraging way. Instead, they have always gone for the short-term hit, the headlines attacking salaries and conditions.
No matter that they like to pose with nurses as they tour hospitals, and teachers in classrooms as they make an announcement about education. There must be a memo somewhere in Whitehall instructing them to “wear concerned, earnest face” when meeting civil service employees.
In truth, whenever cuts and austerity measures are discussed, there is only one body in their sights. In the eyes of a vocal Tory minority the justification goes beyond merely trimming pay and slashing expenditure – it’s akin to naked hostility, that any form of civil servant is first and foremost a drain on the public purse.
That knowledge, plus the obsessive form-filling and petty bureaucracy that goes with the job these days, has reduced our once proud public service to a neutered, cowering beast. Devoid of respect, constantly under siege (who would be a social worker in the present climate, honestly would you?), always made a scapegoat for any calamity, the state sector is a shadow of its former self. Not in terms of size – that goes without saying - but in confidence and authority.
Indeed, it’s a miracle that anyone wants to work for the state at all. In the south-east, the slump in morale is worsened by the failure of the government, despite repeated assurances, to do anything to make housing affordable. Instead, ministers bask in the foreign wealth pouring into London, and do precious little to address the capital’s growing inequality.
Put simply, this is a strange way for a serious employer to behave. The absence of empathy, nurturing, and when things go array, as they inevitably do in any organisation, of shared responsibility, is appalling.
As they rush to heap opprobrium on the strikers, ministers should ask themselves, honestly, if they would tolerate the treatment they mete out to those they employ. Sadly, there’s an election coming and there’s no mileage in posing such a question.