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Samizdata quote of the day – rule by civil service

I worry when I read stories like the business secretary Kemi Badenoch complaining that she cannot deliver her party’s manifesto plans to scrap all EU laws due to Whitehall intransigence. It makes me wonder who exactly is in charge of public policy: elected ministers or their unelected officials?

There is an attitude among senior officials that they know better than these’ here-today-gone-tomorrow’ ministers. The old dictum of ‘advisers advise, ministers decide’ seems reversed. We have unintentionally ended up with a self-propagating bureaucracy who are either averse to change, or who feel they are above the democratic decision-making process.

Eamonn Butler

22 comments to Samizdata quote of the day – rule by civil service

  • Steven R

    “Enter the bureaucrats, the true rulers of the Republic.”
    -Senator Palpatine of Naboo

  • Roué le Jour

    British politics has been a charade for decades. What little power is in minister’s hands is wielded by the duumvirate of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. All the other clowns sitting around the cabinet table are merely sinecure holders.

  • george m weinberg

    This isn’t exactly new. The show “Yes Minister” was mostly about the permanent undersecretary getting his way and the elected mininster doing as he was told.
    Going back slightly further, I’ve been told during the reign of Charles II a wag satirized him the verses:

    We have a pretty witty king whose word no man relies on
    He never said a foolish thing, and never did a wise one.

    His reply was, “My words are my own, my deeds are my ministers'”.

  • bobby b

    I suppose it wouldn’t be a good look for libertarians to start a new initiative to pack the bureaucracy with libertarians.

    But if we want to play the politics game, we probably ought to.

  • Mark

    Once, there were people who would have stuck a suitably sized boot up arrogant, entitled, featherbedded arses. Well, there’s more chance of the actual best actor winning an Obama, sorry, an oscar these days.

    Political parties are a relentlessly grinding mill, which absolutely guarantee that anybody with any vestige of honour, decency, sense of duty, and thought for the country and the morrow does not get anywhere remotely close to a ministerial portfolio. Not to mention any actual ability or an IQ higher than their chromasone count.

    Hells teeth, they pretty well ensure such people can’t even get on a local council.

    More generally, what are still called “universities” do pretty much the same for what are euphemistically called “professions” (“the army, the navy, the church and the stage” as Gilbert & Sullivan once put it. Alas no more: “the offended, the black, the green and the virtuous” perhaps).

    But what has any of this got to do with an old kulak like me? I’m responsible for the mess aren’t I?

    Suppose I’d better shut up now and look forward to the gulag my betters might deign to provide. It will be far more than I deserve.

  • Bruce

    Someone finally noticed what has been going on for DECADES?

    Pubic serpents over-ruling the nominal “peoples representatives?

    Who da’ thunk it?

  • Patrick Crozier

    In a speech given by Norman Tebbit in the 1980s he said he had found the Civil Service very helpful. Another minister I knew said that “there was no conspiracy”. I think a lot comes down to how resolute the government is.

  • I think a lot comes down to how resolute the government is.

    And given the current Tory party are a collection of wet noodles…

  • JJM

    There’s a term for this sort of thing: a self-licking ice cream.

  • Paul Marks.

    Kemi Badenock also knows that the DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) agenda comes from Frankfurt School “Critical Theory” (“Woke” Marxism) – yet the government, including her own department, continues to push this Frankfurt School “Diversity” agenda (in line with the 2010 Equality Act and things long before that – after all the government departments, including the Home Office, had Marxist academic advisers as far back as the 1970s and 1960s) – the minister knows what this agenda is, yet appears powerless to stop it.

    It was much the same with Prime Minister Johnson – he knew (knew) that such policies as HS2 (a hundred billion Pound “not much if you say it quick” railway project to link places that-already-are linked by rail) and the Covid lockdowns were insane – he knew the policies were insane, yet he was powerless to stop the policies.

    Perry explains this by pointing out the Conservative Party are “a collection of wet noodles” – but I fear that something deeper is at work, something about the very nature of British governance.

    After all if there is one policy, above all others, that Conservative voters want it is less immigration – yet immigration goes up and up, almost half a million last year.

    Why are Conservative Party governments unable to deliver a policy that they continually promise and which the voters passionately want? Saying that ministers are a “bunch of wet noodles” is not sufficient to explain this.

    There is something wrong with the basic structure of British governance – the establishment (not just the Civil Service, but the independent agencies such as the Bank of England) have their own agenda.

    I suspect that a British Prime Minister has less power than an American State Governor – indeed that a British Prime Minister is largely a symbolic figure, a “front man” (or women) for a system of governance with its own agenda.

    I hope my fears are exaggerated and that it is just a matter of needing a Prime Minister with a stronger character – but, for example, what happened to Prime Minister Liz Truss (basically an establishment coup led by the Bank of England and the vast Corporations) was terrible – and raises some doubt over whether the United Kingdom is a democracy.

  • Paul Marks.

    “The Devil’s Advocate” on the site the link leads to, claims that deregulation would “destroy the economy”, no doubt he-or-she also believes that lower tax rates would also “destroy the economy” (the “financial crises” last year had nothing to do with lower tax rates – as they were NOT lowered, it was an artificial crises deliberately created by the Bank of England and some of the vast corporations for the political purpose of removing Prime Minister Truss – it was a coup).

    And “The Devil’s Advocate” also believes that unelected officials making policy decision is a good system of government – with democracy being an evil, to be avoided.

    It is good when the enemy are so open about what they are. It would be interesting to know who “The Devil’s Advocate” is.

  • Paul Marks.

    For those who do not know – when one reduces high tax rates one does not get less revenue over time, if anything one gets more revenue over time.

    This was first shown by Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany – way back in the 1780s.

    In the United States – the cuts in the top rate of income tax pushed by President Kennedy and then by President Reagan both produced more revenue, so did the cut in the top rate of income tax that came under President Trump.

    It is quite true that GOVERNMENT SPENDING is the key problem – and that government spending must be radically reduced (regardless of tax rates or deregulation) – but supporters of high tax rates rarely support lower government spending.

    For example, if the present government had any interest at all in getting government spending under control, they would cancel (the utterly insane) “HS2” project.

    I would not advice anyone to hold their breath waiting for First Lord of the Treasury Sunak and Chancellor Hunt to cancel HS2 – I would like to believe they will do this, but I doubt it.

    Indeed the Prime Minister and Chancellor may not, in practice, have the power to cancel HS2 – or to control the borders, or to do anything against the agenda of the international (yes international) establishment.

    I hope they have the power to go against the agenda of the international establishment – but I doubt it.

  • george m weinberg

    That’ll never work, bobby. With few exceptions, people who believe things like “the government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem” will
    be unwilling to go for careers in government even if they could get the positions.

  • Paul Marks.

    george m weinberg.

    There are ministers who believe that government is the problem not the solution, in various matters, but they do-not-have-any-power. The Prime Minister does not seem to have any power either – as we witnessed with Prime Minister Johnson who was forced to follow policies he knew (he knew) were insane – on HS2, Covid lockdowns, and so on. And with Prime Minister Truss – who was removed by a Corporate State coup for not following their policies.

    If we got rid of the Civil Service and the endless “independent bodies” (Quangos like the Bank of England) then we might return to the situation of, for example, Sir Robert Peel – a Prime Minister who hired and fired the staff and really “ran the government”.

    However, to do that government would have to be vastly smaller than it is now.

    In the late 19th century United States those who opposed the creation of a Civil Service (they are systematically smeared in the history books – history being written by the Collectivists) knew that government would have to be limited if it was really to be under elected control – that a Big Government, that tried to control every aspect of life, could not possibly be controlled by elected people.

    The modern international government and corporate bureaucracy know this as well – but they do not want government to be under elected control, so (to them) the fact that Big Government can not really be under democratic control, is a feature not a bug.

  • Paul Marks.

    As people such as Senator Roscoe Conklin understood – control of personal is control of policy.

    If you do not control personal, if you can not hire and fire the officials (if they are in “independent agencies” and the Civil Service) you do not control policy.

  • Kirk

    The same syndrome killed Imperial China, as it did the Romans.

    Humans do not do bureaucracy and hierarchy very well over a scale of centuries. They all go corrupt, as inevitably as the sun rises in the east.

    You want a long-term successful civilization or enterprise? Then, you have to do without “organization” and hierarchy. Note those lasting things done by the human race, on the scale of “big”: Settlement of the Pacific basin by the Polynesians, settlement of the Americas by the first peoples here. Were there big-agency bureaucracies involved, anywhere in all of that? Was there a Polynesian Oceanic Administration, charged with everything on the ocean?

    I suspect that if there was, the Polynesians would still be sitting somewhere near their point of origin.

    Organization is a marvelous thing; it allows us to do enormous things. Sometimes… When it gets out of control, then it’s a positive detractor. There’s nothing that Elon Musk is doing right now that NASA couldn’t have been doing back in the 1970s and 1980s, for themselves. The problem is, they became way more concerned about perpetuating the bureaucracy (Pournelle’s Iron Law in action…) than in getting into space. The FAA and the “environmentalists” may yet succeed in turning Elon Musk into the Zheng He of our times… Remains to be seen.

    Humans do not do this sort of thing at all well. Our greatest achievements arise out of individual action, surrounded by chaos. We should take note of that fact, and change our operating principles accordingly.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    This is what is sometimes called the Deep State, except its depth is not all that deep.

    The recent Sue Gray situation, where a top civil servant who had a role in getting rid of Boris Johnson, and has been approached by the Labour Party to be an advisor, is just one aspect of the problem. The whole idea of an impartial Civil Service, a useful concept to put trust in, has in reality been eroding for years. It is all of the same with a more broad-based degradation of institutions of various kinds, and also an example of how notions of bureaucratic “mission creep” play out. A large number of people owe their salaries, pensions and sense of sense worth from the status quo. It is very difficult to break this up without a dramatic event of some kind.

    I was hoping for a bit of a shift, but the way the pandemic was handled led me to worry how much inertia in this country there is. And of course, not just in the UK.

  • Paul Marks.

    Johnathan Pearce – yes the situation is farcical.

    Kirk – yes the situation is also tragic.

    In Roman terms we, in the United Kingdom and the United States, reached the “Diocletian stage” when the state is just too big and too interventionist for society to sustain it, long ago.

    But just as with the Roman Empire after the Emperor Diocletian increased the size of the government and the degree of state intervention to an unacceptable level, we stagger on.

    The late Roman Empire staggered on as we in the modern West stagger on – the government far too big and too interventionist for society to sustain it, but it carries on.

    It is like being part of a horrible play, which one knows does not make sense, but being terrified of “lights out” and the closing of the curtain.

    For after the decline comes death.

  • Rich Rostrom

    This post reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s 1954 novel The Star Beast. The protagonist is a teenager (it was written as a juvenile). But the real hero is Mr. Kiku, Permanent Undersecretary for Spatial Affairs, who successfully resolves a crisis that could have destroyed Earth. He does so in spite the of the foolish meddling of Secretary of SA MacClure – the political appointee who is his nominal boss. There are scenes in which Kiku and his staff put MacClure in his place. (And they have to.)

    In 1954, Heinlein was not the libertarian he became later. But nonetheless I find this interesting.

  • Lee Moore

    I presume that the civil service usually couch their “advice” that the Minister’s preferred policy will, alas, have to be left on the drawing board, in terms of legal constraints – it’s illegal, or the courts will block it as “not reasonable”, or the Minister may find himself personally on the hook for a $100 million damages claim or whatever. Rather than the Yes, Minister schtick about political fallout.

    I vaguely recall that Michael Heseltine said that his solution was to use outside lawyers to counter the internal legal advice that it would be illegal to do anything other than what the civil service wanted. Maybe it helped being independently wealthy, so that if there was any cavilling about the outside lawyers fees, he could pay for it himself.

  • Paul Marks.

    Lee Moore – yes officials (not just Civil Servants) do present their “advice” and “options” in order to get certain results. And often Parliament has handed over power to “independent bodies” (Quangos) such as the Bank of England and “Ofcom” (the censorship people) – this practice of handing over power to unelected bodies being very popular and utterly insane.

    Rich Rostrom.

    In Chinese philosophy the rule of wise officials using force is know as “Legalism”, Taoists were deeply suspicious of the state (some of then were essentially anarchists) and followers of Confucius were deeply concerned about ritual and order (not for its own sake – but to make virtue a habit, the default way of behaving) for a junior to go against the senior official would certainly be against the Confucian way of thinking.

    But there is also “Legalism” in Chinese philosophy – which means something very different in Chinese thought than in the natural law (natural justice) tradition of the West.

    In Chinese political philosophy “Legalism” is rulers using force to achieve ends they believe to be good – without the concern for individual freedom of the Taoists, or the concern for ritual and right-order of the followers of Confucius.

    One could say that Mao was the ultimate Legalist – in the Chinese (not Western) sense.

    In the story by Heinlein that you mention a Legalist (an official using force and ignoring his political superior) saves the world.

    I think that such conduct is more likely to destroy the world – at least destroy what is left of the free world.

    It is how American officials now behave – actively seeking to undermine a President (such as President Trump) when the President goes against the line of policy the officials think correct – namely the desire of the officials for ever more (and ever more international) control of ordinary people by the state (the international corporate state).

    When an “educated” bureaucracy has reached this point, it can not be reformed – it must be destroyed.

  • Paul Marks.

    As Senator Roscoe Conkling would have pointed out – the very title “Permanent” undersecretary, undermines the principle of constitutional government.

    The title itself indicates despotism, despotic government.

    I do not often agree with the late socialist “Tony” Benn – but he was correct in pointing out that if officials are not appointed by elected ministers and can not be REMOVED, then democratic governance is a fiction.