« | Home | »

The Unelected

Tags: |

Steve Hilton’s denunciation of the Civil Service earlier this month should be taken lightly. David Cameron’s former adviser, who in the early days of opposition leadership set his employer on a democratic bike while his shoes travelled behind by Lexus, has made a habit of attacking public servants for standing in the way of government ministers pleasing sectional profit. It is, the argument goes, undemocratic: power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats – the habitual drone of interested parties. This is the language used of the BBC by politicians compliant to the point of servitude with Rupert Murdoch.

Nobody elected Murdoch or his editors. Nobody elected Hilton. Nobody elected Michael Ashcroft or the staffers he has effectively paid for. The paid-for-from-general-revenue senior civil servant, discouraging this or that idea attractive to the government’s commercial friends, is not elected either. But nor is he owned, salaried or on-call to corporate interests. He might become so, but should he serve a second master, he enters dangerous ground and risks consequences, not perhaps enough, but such as to encourage prudential, even honest conduct. The civil servant standing in the way of schemes narrowly attractive to those investing in them is indeed unelected, but also disinterested, also a public servant. Whom does Hilton serve? Whom does he want Cameron to serve?  

Comments on “The Unelected”

  1. keith smith says:

    Ministers often come into office with agendas that were never put before an electorate, even in terms of broad political philosophy, let alone in terms of actual content. These agendas, and the ideas and proposals springing out of them, may be reasonable but more often they are wasteful, unconstitutional, illegal, authoritarian or stark staring mad. On top of this, the everyday business of government involves constant proposals for action, emanating from thinktanks and advocacy groups of all kinds, usually costly and usually benefiting some special interest. Pearce is right to say that a task of any governmental bureaucracy anywhere is to put the case for saying no. Its a thankless task but someone’s got to do it. Hilton’s complaint is based on the same illusion that David Blunkett suffered from, when he complained about the unelected judges who found some of his actions illegal: the idea that being elected means you can do just anything. Of course politicians are constantly struggling against the constraint of having to be reasonable or even lawful, and this is a central motive for civil service cuts or ‘reforms’ (such as the Australian innovation of putting senior civil servants on short-term contracts).

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...
    • Michael Schuller on Immigration Scandals: The Home Office is keen to be seen to be acting tough on immigration, although I'm not sure that the wider project has anything to do with real number...
    • Geoff Roberts on What happened in Cologne?: The most surprising thing about the events in Cologne (and the most disturbing) is that some 600 incidents of theft, harrasment and rape were reported...
    • EmilyEmily on What happened in Cologne?: The author's argument is straightforward: Sexual violence is one beast; fears about migrants is another - let's not confuse the two. Alfalfa's poin...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement