The Cabinet Office — a Regency perspective

Set an example

If the premiership is a monarchy, our kings need better advisers


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

There’s a story going around. For some it’s told with lip-smacking anticipation and relish. For others it’s the horror show they had long anticipated and claimed to be fighting against. It goes like this: Boris Johnson, just like Donald Trump before him, wanted to start a revolution; there were forces welling up which called for one; it could feasibly have been done (and was desperately needed). However, both blond beasts failed to meet their rendezvous with destiny. They sat on the throne and did nothing.

This fable is entirely wrong and in telling it the only objectives served are in mythmaking and evasion. It is, in short, a glittering legend of the civil service.

In Donald Trump’s America, the challenge to whatever it was he and his voters represented was the administrative state that his presidency failed to tame. This “liberal regime” saturated officialdom, and its complaints, not least about Trump’s presumptions, were greatly amplified by a cultural clerisy spreading through academe, the press and the arts.

Scholars such as Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School offer an erudite and convincing intellectual case underpinning what is happening in the country that failed to have a Trumpian counter-revolution. American politicians and journalists show why and how it didn’t happen there.

The vote to leave the EU was a vote to leave the EU

While this story — of a lost revolution — might be true there, it is not true in the United Kingdom. We have different problems and require different solutions. To see them clearly is to realise that there never was a chance of a Johnsonian revolution. Indeed, supposing that there ever was such an intent is central to the problems this country faces.

In the British version, Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, and others left over from the Referendum campaign embodied the weltanschauung of Brexit. They were the living embodiment of the vote to leave the EU. In this interpretation, it was naïve to imagine the referendum was simply what it said it was — a plebiscite on whether the UK should stay in the EU — but realistic to suppose that the realisation of Brexit tasked them with delivering their own revolution.

This is moonshine. The vote to leave the EU was a vote to leave the EU. It was a revolutionary — or reactionary — act, and its consequences are exactly as promised: control, and responsibility, were returned to the UK’s political system, and the excuse of “Europe” was ripped away from the British governing classes. A revolution did not cause us to leave the EU; leaving the EU — demonstrably — has not caused a revolution beyond the fact of the UK no longer being in it. Brexit cannot be understood if it is not seen in proportion and perspective.

Arguing that a British revolution — for what? about what? by whom? — led by Johnson, Cummings and others was forestalled by a British deep state, its biddable media outriders, and sometimes near hysterical lawyers and ex-bureaucrats with a fondness for Twitter commentary is sheer silliness. It’s akin to the sort of thing Tom Nairn argued for in his diagnosis of Ukania — after Kakania, Robert Musil’s derogatory nickname for the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in The Man Without Qualities.

A republican and Scottish nationalist, Nairn’s assertion was that the British state is illegitimate, inadequate and doomed. This wish-fulfilment was in turn taken by Nairn’s fellow travellers as analytical proof of the end they desired. But which has yet to come about.

The remedial action their diagnosis required was, however, delivered by Blairite liberals. They accepted Nairn’s critique — of the House of Lords, an incorporative, undevolved Union, courts which operated without the blessings of the ECHR in British law and other such Ruritanian survivals — but answered it with progressive pabulum.

That Blair had no rationale for acting as he did on devolution and the reform of the House of Lords beyond wishing to be seen as being modern is neither here nor there. He and his huge Commons majorities did it. The cry now — that a revolution has not happened/is needed — rests on the claim that there is a “Blair settlement”. This is what people are alternately still resisting, or, insisting never went far enough to begin with.

But is there such an order? Was there anything new under the sun in Blair’s settlement that Asquith wouldn’t have recognised and welcomed as familiar, and which his spiritual heirs such as Roy Jenkins helped to bring into being?

Instead of believing Blairite hype, a far more plausible description of the British state is that — bar devolution, which was done in a fit of absence of mind, but, crucially, on Westminster’s terms — it is fundamentally the same liberal state that welcomed Tony Blair’s arrival. Which means that “dismantling it”, from whatever direction, is a very big proposition indeed.

Undoing the liberal state requires what Brexit had: inter and intra-party dispute. There is no evidence that this passion exists. No one really has the willpower to do it. Ask anyone deeply involved in bringing about Brexit what it took to achieve it and the honest answer is: everything that led up to the referendum. There have not been the required decades of work to get to the point where the liberal state is seriously questioned.

An examination of the status quo will, of course, not come from within Whitehall. Why would it? The civil service, who have, at all ranks, joined in Boris Johnson’s Covid non-complaint disgrace are spared rebuke. For whatever political price the Prime Minister may yet pay, we know that civil servants will not be asked to share in it. They are not, even in Number 10, to be named for their rule-breaking; their penalty is merely to be moved to other publicly paid roles.

The lack of honour and basic personal responsibility is breathtaking: no politician made any civil servant break the rules that they, between them, helped devise and enforce. Modern British bureaucrats look out for themselves as much as for the commonweal.

One excuse given for them by Sue Gray, long-time consigliere to Jeremy Heywood, that arch-enabler and obscurer of civil service delinquency, was that the officials in No 10 were still actually at their desks working, unlike almost everyone else in Whitehall. Gray, employing the passive voice of administration, further explained in her report:

Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.

So, how to solve the problem of the permissive society in Downing Street? Easy: make it bigger.

Gray’s solution, eagerly adopted by the Prime Minister in the Commons, was that a supposedly out of control Number 10, already more bloated than at any time in its history, should be made larger still. “The structures”, Gray intoned, “that support the smooth operation of Downing Street [have] not evolved sufficiently to meet the demands of this expansion”. Expand more! Don’t rock the bloat. A bigger Cabinet Office is required or, as likely, let Number 10 be taken over by arguably Whitehall’s least effective element.

Cynics will argue that this will go the same way as spokeswoman-led televised press conferences: furniture will be moved, rooms shall be painted, and nothing will happen save taxes going up.

Keep the system, but chop off many more heads

But that leaves the Savonarolas railing against the civil service unsated. Sure, the supposed revolutionaries who entered Downing Street in 2019 failed and ran away, but then they had to make very sure that they did. For if they had stayed they would have had to face up to the fact that they had no solutions to the problems they had misdiagnosed.

The civil service can’t be radically transformed by Jedi knights or subjected to some absurd Year Zero. These fantasies are idle, weak and childish. Yet a system that produces our current ambassador to Ukraine or a former JIC chairman like Peter Ricketts has recruited and promoted second-rate minds. The calibre of contemporary senior civil servants is seen daily in the quality of their work, or in the astoundingly simplistic things they say once pensioned off. The cure for admiring the inheritance of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms is to read what the ennobled Humphreys tweet.

David Starkey in our July issue last year made the case that the premiership is a second monarchy: executive and practical, whereas the real thing at the other end of St James’s Park is abstract and collectivist. Bagehot had it wrong in imagining that “a republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a monarchy”. Our system, Starkey insisted, remains a court with a king. This is true. And the gravest problem our system suffers from is not systemic, but the abysmal quality of the courtiers.

Our kings do need better advisers. For it is habitually their fault that so much is done so badly. Kings have a quality of their own simply by virtue of becoming such. Poor counsellors have no such excuse or protection. Keep the system, but chop off many more heads.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover