‘I am the Führer.’ No doubt this was just a bit of badinage on Boris Johnson’s part (retailed by Michael Gove to the authors of a forthcoming book about his ill-fated premiership: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/apr/22/i-am-the-fuhrer-im-the-king-new-book-lifts-lid-on-life-inside-boris-johnsons-chaotic-no-10); but it does seem to fit – uncomfortably – with much that is going on in the Tory party these days. It was apparently said by Johnson to one of his advisers, the notorious Dominic Cummings, who had dared to take issue with him.
People like Boris don’t like to be ‘advised’. Advisers are there to accept ministers’ orders unquestionably, and then to implement them. One gathers from the intemperate letter that another Dominic (Raab) wrote to the prime minister after his forced resignation from government a few days ago (https://news.sky.com/story/dominic-raabs-resignation-letter-in-full-12862454), that his attitude towards ‘advisers’ – in this case the regular Civil Service – is much the same. He accuses them – ‘the Blob’, as he calls them – of being an ‘activist’ cadre, anti-Brexiters all of them, plotting to derail his and his government’s policies come what may; and therefore deserving to be ‘bullied’ – the offence that caused Raab’s downfall – in the pursuit of administrative efficiency, and also – Raab contends – of ‘democracy’. It was the ‘people’, after all, who elected him. So who elected the Blob?
Well, no-one. But that could be one of the great virtues of Britain’s (otherwise very imperfect) democracy. Together with the similarly unelected House of Lords and our independent judiciary, it’s one of our main lines of defence against a constituency that occasionally oversteps the bounds of considered thought and action, and proposes or does things which without a bit more thought might turn out to be dangerous, or unwise, or impossible, or simply wrong. In other words, it acts as a corrective against the worst effects of what used to be called ‘mob rule, and now goes under the name of ‘populism’; that is, direct and immediate responses to popular votes without proper consideration of their likely repercussions, and possible need for amendment in the light of these.
Governments and ministers of all colours have for years bridled at the obstacles that the Civil Service – and the Lords, and the judges – have put in the way of their legislating as boldly and effectively as they would like. (Look at the memoirs of almost any post-war politician. Or the old TV comedy series, Yes Minister, so beloved by Margaret Thatcher.) Before today, however, none has sought so avidly and consistently to radically curb these ‘checks and balances’ as the present and recent Conservative governments: what with Priti Patel’s and Suella Braverman’s wars against both British and European justices (‘lefty lawyers’); Boris Johnson’s efforts to twist constitutional proprieties to get Brexit through; multiple sackings or enforced retirements of higher civil servants; the climate of fear that Raab has been shown to have created among his advisors if they dared to cross him; and the general and vicious hostility shown towards all these agencies in the right-wing press. – All this, in order to enable what the Right would consider to be ‘efficient’ government, in accordance with the supposed will of ‘the people’, unmediated by ‘Blobs’ and ‘traitors’; and led by the sort of ‘Führer’ that Johnson would apparently have liked to be.
First of all, thanks for the thoughtful blog and for its genial tone, even though the subject matter is often serious.
As you say, ministers in the past have bridled at Civil Service orthodoxy. Examples such as Joseph Chamberlain (vs. Treasury dogma), Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher seem to suggest that this conflict is most common when a particularly ideological politician wants to break with the existing consensus.
Now the thing about Johnson is that he is, by all accounts, an ideological vacuum, an opportunist. I haven’t read Anthony Seldon’s book yet, but I suspect that Johnson’s real role model is not Churchill but Disraeli. Both were/are outsiders – Johnson born abroad, father not part of the establishment, needing a scholarship to Eton, financially insecure – and both masterful at climbing to the top of the greasy pole. Brexit seems to have been Johnson’s way of dishing Labour and his party leader at the same time, doing in one year what Disraeli could only do in twenty-one. Little did he suspect that he would be dished in turn by Dishy Rishy. I hasten to add that I am not implying that Disraeli was as dubious a character as Johnson, nor that he was as bad an author!
I suspect that the Brexit wing of the Tory party really wanted a Joseph Chamberlain after Brexit, but instead they got a Disraelian. The real anti-Civil Service animus seems to have led by Dominic Cummings, for whom I can think of no real historical equivalent: maybe Alfred Milner, though he was broadly in tune with Chamberlain; perhaps Bartle Frere, determined to do what he thought was necessary, regardless of the Disraeli government’s needs.
As you suggest, there is another aspect to this hostility to the Civil Service which is fomented by the likes of the Daily Mail: the rhetoric of “liberal elites” betraying the people. But that sort of paranoid populism would have been alien to Joseph Chamberlain, however much his radicalism startled the horses.
Of the five Anglophone countries, two have powerful quasi-fascist movements that have all but taken over the Conservative Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the US. However, in Australia, Canada and New Zealand the toxic right is apparently ebbing as a political force. Recent elections in Australia have shown that the conservative Liberal Party has been electorally punished due to its vulnerability to its Trump-lite tendencies.
In the past, Bernard, you have attributed the UK’s vulnerability to the Right to the power of the Murdoch empire. Yet, in Australia, where Murdoch has a stranglehold on the press, the more conservative politicians allow themselves to be Fox mouthpieces, the more their vote is threatened. I wonder if you have a good explanation of why the UK, with its long history of liberalism, should be succumbing, while the smaller ‘colonies’ are proving to be resistant to right-populism.
I’m happy to learn that Australia, Canada and NZ are edging away from proto-fascism. I’ve always felt – from living there – that Australia is more essentially and socially democratic than Britain – or, more accurately, England. Maybe that has something to do with it? I could suggest other possible factors, giving Murdoch a more pliable material to work on. I’ll have a think.
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