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The Unelected

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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).

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