Opinion: are we participants in ‘elective dictatorship’ ?

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 works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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15 Comments

  • It would be a shame to lose the original meaning of ‘elective dictatorship’ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elective_dictatorship

  • Paul Holmes 24th Apr '12 - 9:45am

    Certainly there are always issues of permanent civil servants being able to ‘block’ and ‘mould’ the actions of transient elected politicians -even more pronounced in Local Government where most Cllrs are part time. But politicians with clear priorities can always overcome this and many do -as far as I could see over 21 years as Cllr and MP.

    The main 2 obvious flaws with the reasoning in this article are:

    1. The military and the civil servants did not decide on the illegal invasion of Iraq in pursuit of non existent WMD. That was decided upon by Blair and Bush. In the UK it was dragooned through by Blair and his spin doctor in chief (Labour loyalist Alistair Campbell).

    2. The rest of the article depends upon taking as gospel the words of maverick, right wing backbencher Douglas Carswell! Now I got to know Douglas quite well 2005-2010 and likeable as he is few of his views stand up to any scrutiny. He would be be far more at home in the paranoid fantasy world of UKIP than in mainstream politics.

  • jenny barnes 24th Apr '12 - 10:01am

    What you’re actually describing is government by the civil service. You could call it Officialocracy, but as sid says, it’s not an elective dictatorship. Clearly civil servants will have thoughts about possible policies “A very brave move, Minister”. But I believe that what is going on is the co-option of our “political” class by the rich; from 1979 to the present we have had tory, labour, and now libdem/coaliton governments following broadly similar neo-liberal policy lines, presumably because the plutocracy wanted that. Of course, civil servants in particular departments may be able to see the best way to achieve particular policy aims – that does depend on government ministers having policy aims in the first place, though.

  • Richard Dean 24th Apr '12 - 10:33am

    Frankly many politicians seem to be idiots. Particularly on the Conservative side. One should perhaps be thankful for the steady guiding hand of the civil service!

  • David Boothroyd 24th Apr '12 - 10:56am

    Can it be noted that yet again a Lib Dem trots out the claim that the liberation of Iraq was ‘illegal’ without seeking to establish how and why it was so, and against which law? Things don’t just become illegal because you happen to think they were very wrong.

  • I don’t know about dictatorship, but it does sometimes seem that the political classes are more interested in imposing things on the electorate than representing them. Have the Lib Dems gone down the same route? I’d have to say more than any other party, because the discrepancy between the policies the party stood on and who it’s electorate were and what it’s agreed to in power is greater. If it was actually representing the interests of its voters it wouldn’t be in the mess it is in now,

  • Keith Browning 24th Apr '12 - 1:44pm

    The problem is that if like minded people share their views and try to come up with a democratic system that excludes the ‘ruling toffs’ then they will find members of the ‘dark arts’ spying on them and recording everything about their lives. We are seeing before our eyes the removal of the democratic process from Great Britain. People need to wake up to the reality of what is happening.

    I have just witnessed James Murdoch saying it wasn’t right that Vince Cable should make a decision about BSkyB because he had spoken out against him but it was fine to appoint as his replacement somebody who had openly spoke in his favour. He went to have a chat with his chum, ‘call me Dave’ and everything was quickly fixed.

    Democracy in action..!

  • Toby MacDonnell 24th Apr '12 - 1:51pm

    This fear of living in an “elected dicatatorship” is a parannoid projection: government is just a part of the devision of labour, and putting people in charge of running the national infrastructure expertly does not constitute a status of dictatorship. Although every constitution has the capacity for corruption, ours is very firmly routed in preserving a range of liberties, including of political affiliation: I have yet to see Green party members removed from their homes without charge at 2:34 in the morning by men in trenchcoats. Mistaking the mechanisms of an effective governing body for a state of dictatorship is not only a grave insult to our standards of liberty, but also an injustice to those who do genuinely live in single party states where political affiliation and economic endevour are governed by a malicious, egotistic, violent and brutal dictatorship.

  • James Sandbach 24th Apr '12 - 2:26pm

    Elective dictatorship is not just about the power of the civil service and Treasury to deliver orthodox solutions (so ‘whoever is elected, the Government wins’), or about the centralisation of power within the Treasury & No 10, but also the extraordinary power of the whips and the Parliamentary system as a whole (especially under FPTP results) to stiffle debate and deliver false majorities for individual policies that aren’t in the least representative of the spectrum of political expressed in the ballot box. So the supposed checks and balances of a representative Parliament over the executive (ie Cabinet) are toothless and worthless. I think this neatly encapsulates many of the Coalition’s dilemmas and especially for lib dem MPs and Peers who are quite literally forbidden to vote with their conscience, or with regard to what our own representative Party Conference has voted for. The weakness of the checks and balances are watered down further by the way Parliament is managed – for example, the guilotine on Commons Bill debates, or if there is a risk that Government will loose a vote in the House of Lords on a particular Bill or amendment thereto, the government whips and programme managers will make sure that the issue is debated late in the evening when many crossbenchers and opposition backbenchers have gone home. Another aspects of eletive dictatorship are the meaningless consultation procedures which are supposed to be there for stakeholders to input into policy, but in reality Departments are going through the motions as the decisions as to the outcomes of such consultations have already been pre-empted by ministers. Finally, the tribal culture of parliamentary politics mitigates against constructive and discrete cross-party alliances developing around particular issues (even if so called Bill Scrutiny Committees) – or at least to the extent that the Government apple cart might be upset.

    Real political reform – and real coalition dare I say – needs to tackle this fundamental control freakery culture which ensures that the Government (as a small Cabinet cabal which sets the legislative agenda and spending) always gets its way in the political process. This last Parliamentary year for example has seen the passage of very controversial legislation but minimal consultation and scrutiny – so lords amendments automatically overturned, risk registers not published etc.

    Suppose for example the Government had made just a small concession to lobby group alliances on the Welfare Reform Bill like extending the 1 year time-limit on ESA claims to 2 years – would the Governnment fall, a constitutional crisis ensue, an economic crisis follow in which the IMF are called in – of course not!! But such is the paranoia and control freakery of our current system, that Government cannot give any ground on any of its flagships.

  • Paul Reynolds 25th Apr '12 - 2:58am

    Thanks for the heartfelt comments. I would take issue on one point – whether the Iraq war was a case of weak spin-orientated politicians and strong officials, or whether it was decided upon by politicians (two, in fact). It has been well established (as far as it can be in these matters) that the Pentagon and security institutions had planned the Iraq war well in advance of 9/11, and well before Bush was elected. Those that understand the practice of UK government decision-making on something like supporting the US on military action know only too well that it is impossible for a PM to take the UK to war as a kind of ‘personal decision’. Sure, many folk in the FCO were against the war, and keen to point out that it was illegal, but they don’t hold the trump card on such an issue. Blair was liked across the UK and US establishment because he was so subservient to the aspirations of the military & security elite (inter alia), and so damn good at persuading the public. Knowing the system as it works, the idea that a young Mr Blair could decide on his own that the UK should go to war, is quite laughable. By the way the Iraq invasion WAS illegal, (no authorising UNSC resolution, and no ‘defence’ or R2P criterion) and now we know FCO legal counsel advised the government so (ref Elizabeth Wilmshurst, CMG).

    However, my main emphasis concerns the weakness of politicians, a special problem with Ministers, relative to civil servants – and their self-perceived primary professional function of spinning and public communications which has led to this shift of relative power. If you look carefully at the backgrounds of many, you will see a range of experience which is very thin indeed and not very well suited to running departments, solving problems, and running the country. They seem better equipped to……. apply media management techniques and focus on ‘presentation’, since most have insufficient wherewithal to define and solve the problems of the nation.

  • Any control freakery and paranoia on behalf of those in office is equally matched by the frustrated apathy and confusion of those who sit at home complaining.

    One begets the other, and so a vicious circle is created. This circle turns into a spiral, and bureaucrats are sucked into the vacuum.

    If you’re unhappy with it, then you should join a party and become politically active.

  • I completely agree we are in living in an Elective dictatorship, but the controllers of the power are the media barons and leaders of large corporations(possibly corrupting the civil servants). Look at the Leveson inquiry to prove my point.

  • Paul Reynolds 25th Apr '12 - 11:13am

    Thank you Matthew. To the point, as ever. We really don’t agree on this at all. The problem with your thesis is that the evidence does not support the idea that Special Advisers and their equivalent in Washington DC were the originators of the Iraq war, and the planners of it in the years before it happened. The role of Blair and his spinners was to promote the war – the advisers were PR people and journalists not war planners or foreign policy wonks – and these folk formed a necessary chapter in the war plan (how to get the politicians, advisers, and media to promote the war to the public and ‘prepare public opinion). I was unsure about this relationship at first, but in my role dealing with the politics & aftermath of the war, withiin Iraq, and working with all the Western actors, the formulation I have described became more and more obvious.

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