A formula. Politicians who are weak, plus ‘Sir Humphreys’ who are strong, equals elective dictatorship.
It was Tony Blair who introduced the idea to the British public of politicians who see themselves primarily as spokespeople for the decisions and interests of officials. With Blair and his New Labour concept, it became more obvious that there was a new class of ‘professional’ career politician – seeing their role primarily as spinning-for-the-state and controlling public opinion.
A little-noticed last phrase in a BBC news item last week may be another symptom of a weakening democratic system of elected politicians – those who used to control the civil and military services, alas now the other way round. It signals trouble ahead. I shall elaborate.
The Blair era encapsulated this weakening eloquently with the now famous phase ‘We will prepare public opinion’. The UK having agreed with the US that British Forces would assist in the illegal ground invasion of Iraq, committed itself to ‘selling’ the idea to politicians and the general British public. ‘Preparing public opinion’ in effect means that civil & military officials decide what the public should want, and then they get the media and politicians to sell it to the rest of us. This is the exact opposite of the principle of democracy, where the public persuades the politicians, who instruct and scrutinise the officials over what the population wants.
This Iraq case was not just about behind-the-scenes subservience to Washington DC. It described the essential feature of what Blair and the New Labour folk were all about. This is the idea that officials make decisions over things the rest of us don’t, or ought not to, understand – and that the job of elected politicians is largely to be there to persuade the general public, being knowledgeable about the language and obsessions of the masses.
The BBC article in question (‘Sir Humphrey dominating policy,’ claims Tory MP, 15th April) was about a bitter complaint of a Tory MP in relation to the ‘omnishambles’ – a succession of poorly managed reforms. Tory MP Douglas Carswell blamed the shambles over ‘pasty-gate’ and ‘granny-tax-gate’ on the fact that civil servants have pet reforms, that they present over and over to ministers until one of them agrees to accept it – and to sell it to the public. He thus accuses weak or lazy ministers of being pushovers for civil servants. Aides have gone further, saying that this problem exists right across the Coalition Government.
The MP lamented the days in which Chancellors would write the budget and then run through details with officials, contrasting with the situation today where spin-orientated Ministers rely almost entirely on the work of officials. The BBC reported that influential Tory advisers had gone public in agreeing with Carswell’s conclusions – in effect criticising the way his own party has continued with the ‘Blair culture of spin’. One can easily see the connection with the recent newspaper scandals – if Ministers cannot work through the media to do their job of persuasion, they cannot be seen as successful. The origin of the power of the media over politicians becomes obvious – especially if state officials have close links with media moguls and are thus able to ‘put the squeeze’ on politicians from both sides.
The unasked question in this story is whether Lib Dem Ministers are different, or whether they share these failings, also seeing themselves as mere spinners of civil servant proposals. I would like to report that Treasury officials have been impressed by the forensic approach of the Lib Dems over plans to take more poorer people out of paying income tax. Success, apparently, comes from managing civil servants closely – as opposed to taking civil servant proposals and ‘preparing public opinion’. In peace as in war the same principle applies it would seem.
However, one can easily imagine the dialogue between top UK officials and those in Middle Eastern monarchies hindered by public demonstrations; ‘The advantage of democracy, dear boy, is that it gives us hundreds of inexperienced politicians that, for very little money, will spend every waking hour persuading the general public over what we officials want to do, often unknowingly’.
* Paul Reynolds is an independent foreign policy & international economics adviser, who has had senior political roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, among other countries across the globe.