It is said that if you stick an oily finger in a beer, the head disappears as a single molecule’s thickness of oil chokes the surface. Lifeboats used to calm the mighty waves the same way: all the welling depths of the ocean were stifled by the thinnest film upon the surface. Abandon your theories about the ‘Deep State’: it is the Shallow State which prevents change – the fine layer upon the surface smothering action from reaching the nation.
The functions of the state interact with the citizen not through great councils or wise heads, but by the hands of junior officials. Wise heads are (on occasion) hired to look after great matters of state, but they are not the ones putting it into effect. They are at the mercy of those junior clerks. The junior staff are not privy to the policy priorities from on high, and not really interested – they just do their jobs. It can be a cushy billet by all accounts, so a good clerk will keep his or her head down and get on with a basic service. Innovation is punishable.
This level is the interface with the public, which puts all into practical effect.
If an activist has appointed herself in a senior role, threatening junior staff with discipline for not following her agenda, they will go along with it for an easy life, though they may disagree, and even if that activist civil servant has no authority for her action.
More important are the natural processes of recruitment. Everyone has his or her own interests and priorities. There is a section of the Home Office dealing with nationality and immigration: one can imagine who would apply to work in it, and that is reflected in actual staffing. Likewise for many specialist areas. The minister may change, and have new, fresh ideas, but the staff implementing it have their own ideas and they have not changed. It may be a molecule-thick layer on the water, but all the pronouncements of government are choked before they reach action and the public.
On occasion something dramatic happens: when an immigration crackdown was announced not long ago, many junior civil servants protested and said they would refuse to implement it. It is rarely so explicit though: The Windrush Scandal was not caused by any order from the Home Secretary to deport those who had arrived here lawfully in a past generation, but by junior staff implementing a version of the rules, either idiotically or, one suspects, maliciously in order to discredit the whole scheme; and it worked.
I should not concentrate on that one areas though – it is not of particular interest, and serves only because of the scandal.
In many areas of government the same shallow-state effect is visible: stifling policy, stifling innovative thinking, and allowing just a few activist staff to have a wider impact. The government machine is too vast, too Byzantine, for it to be any other way.
Can fraud in social security or the National Health Service be curbed, as every government promises? Not when staff are just getting on with their jobs to process applications as quickly as possible, and not spending time examining the minutiae or questioning suspicions, and not while they are kept afraid of accusations. Ministers are as distant from the tasks for which they are nominally responsible as is the director of a multinational concern from the teenagers who serve their burgers. They may shout, but all the layers of insulation between them and the actual doers will muffle them entirely, and the junior staff will just get on with their jobs.
Kemi Badenoch has spoken to the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship that government should ignore extremist lobbyists – but she cannot do anything about it, because the real government are the junior staff at the public interface.
The opportunities for activists to fill the power vacuum is clear. They need not be in a supervisory role: someone in a back office wrote the coding that resulted in some government agency webpages having dropdowns that included ‘Islas Malvinas’ and ‘Occupied Palestine’. No one was tasked with checking and intervening. That at least appears to have been resolved after it was brought to higher attention. Many low-rankers are in the meantime still writing ‘guidance’ notes, enforced as iron law, forcing their own ideas on the junior staff, with no authority to do so.
We read of an employee of ACAS, a government agency, hounded out and slandered when he questioned critical race theory: race-hatred was to be enforced as unquestionable dogma, by the authority delegated by a Cabinet Minister. The tribunal was astounded, but ministers nominally in charge did not even notice. It is no part of government policy, and indeed has been condemned by ministers, so who is in charge, and why are they not removed?
The permanent, non-political civil service is not then to be seen in the great mandarins treated nominally with reverence, but collectively in the most junior layer, whose hands do all, working away at their tasks, keeping their heads down, insulated from the politics afar off from them. They are the single, thin layer that interact with the public, collectively stopping anything from changing.
- Minutiae – the big failing
- Privatise the Civil Service
- Memo from the Minister
- The Long March: conspiracy of or accident?
- A system failing in the middle
- Teapotohedral policy
- A cabal of its enemies
- What happened to the hard rain?
- The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham (former senior Lord of Appeal)
- Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics by Jonathan Sumption (former Justice of the Supreme Court)
- The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken
- Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws
- Scots Law for Journalists by Rosalind McInnes
- Constitutional & Administrative Law by Neil Parpworth
- By Thomas Hobbes:
- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
- The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray
- Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution by Vernon Bogdanor
- Making a Success of Brexit and Reforming the EU by Roger Bootle
- Brexit: Its Necessity and Challenge by Tony Kosuge
- Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe by Denis MacShane
- Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union by Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley
- Brexit: How Britain Left Europe by Denis MacShane