A script line recurs in my favourite New York cop show, always deployed quite casually but weighed with significance. “What does that guy do?” one character will ask another. “Oh, he works for the city,” comes the reply. Could be a police officer, a firefighter, a parking attendant, a bureaucrat, a health and safety officer. In each case, there’s unspoken meaning. That individual works for the greater good, for all of us.
Here, we also proceed down that route, but only very occasionally. We walked it respectfully this week for the funeral of the police officer murdered in the Westminster atrocity. “He laid down his life for each one of us,” said the Metro newspaper. Quite rightly, PC Keith Palmer, a guardian of parliament, was accorded a special ceremony, his body having been allowed to lie at rest – with the Queen’s permission – at the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, an honour usually reserved for heads of state. Crowds lined the street to recognise the contribution of PC Palmer. That’s as it should be. He worked for the city.
But so do millions of others in towns and cities up and down the country, and in the aftermath of this week’s funeral, might this also be a good time to think about the lens through which we often view them. There is a world of difference between “he/she works for the city” and those in Britain reductively derided as “public sector workers”. There is another short form loaded with meaning. Not so much “they work for us”, as “behold the cohort whose occupations we are forced to sustain via our taxes”.
That we benefit from what they do is a truth marginalised within the general perception. Some of that is, of course, explained by the ideological hostility to the unions that represent them. Too disruptive, too muscular. Those who “work for the city” are either cast as selfish types using positions of power to exploit the public. Or we go further: they’re just in it for the money – your money – with an unfettered, cushy life and the unbreakable safety net of platinum-plated pensions.
According to that narrative, the public-sector rot starts at the top and works its way downward. This week, the Mail – edited by a man who owns an EU-subsidised country estate and earns over £2m a year – railed again at the town hall “fat cat” bosses who earn “more than the prime minister”. Excessive salaries are to be deprecated, but when a group is singled out for “endless grasping”, surely the intent is to create another class to be labelled “enemies of the people”. The attack is specific but the collateral damage is general and deliberately so. Your money is being wasted and those in the public sector, cascading down from the bosses, are the people wasting it.
Our gut instinct is right. Showing gratitude to hero police officers, firefighters, ambulance staff and nurses is important for them, and not just for them. In times of stress or tragedy, it can bring catharsis to a troubled society. But even that falls short of what’s truly required: a clear recognition that communities are sustained by the workers we pay to educate our children, to care for our elderly, to clean our streets, to uphold our safety standards, to push our hospital trollies, to administrate and to perform the whole raft of tasks that underpin our way of life so we can live as we choose to.
'The philosophy of 'private good, public bad' infects the media, industry and politics'
That’s not to ignore a need for the fair scrutiny that can make public services more effective. It’s rather to say that we need a different way of viewing the contract between society and the members of that society whose collective efforts provide the structure and the safety net. The first issue is not the money, important though that is. The priority is a fundamental understanding that public servants bring as much to our everyday lives as the banks, the private institutions and the private industrialists whose activities drive a capitalist economy.
The philosophy of “private good, public bad” infects the media, industry and politics, and the effects are easily discernible. Public-sector solutions are denigrated and rejected in favour of wasteful, incompetent outsourcing, which is often socially corrosive, but is hardly ever subject to the animus directed at services supplied by the state – not to mention the individuals who provide them. That’s where we need to start a rethink.
Society, and even the media, did right by PC Palmer. The attack on him was correctly seen as an assault on a symbol. We in turn made plain our support for the tradition and values that are represented by that symbol at that place. But this shouldn’t be the end of it. Instead, it should inform in some small way how we think about all public servants, in or away from the prestige sites, with or without uniform. They are us. They all work for us. They work for the city.