Dissing the Establishment

The resignation of the UK’s chief representative to the EU, Ivan Rogers, gives us an unusual glimpse into the inner workings of government.  His very public (if formally veiled) criticisms of government ministers goes against the normal practice of confidentiality and secrecy that lies at the heart of the relationship between civil servants and ministers.  This suggests not only a breakdown of the machinery of government, but also highlights the changes of the personnel in office, as well as the enormous difficulty of the choices facing politicians in charge of responding to the Brexit vote.

The UK civil service has been in existence since 1855, established to provide permanent personnel to administer government, and to end corruption and patronage, following the Northcote-Trevelyan Report.  This provided for civil servants to be permanent and impartial, serving through changes in ministry, irrespective of the political complexion of the government of the day.  The watchword became that civil servants advise, and ministers decide. 

Compare this to the United States, where the President appoints most senior offices directly, and Donald Trump has simply handed direct control of the state to people who are themselves direct capitalists: giving state power to one faction of the capitalist class and a world class opportunity for industrial scale corruption.

The UK system worked reasonably well, within its own terms, providing professionalism at the heart of the increasingly complex government machine, as the size of the state expanded through the first half of the 20th century.  In socialist terms, we understand the state to be the executive committee of the ruling class, the capitalists.  The permanent Civil Service, however, did not have to come from individuals who were themselves personally capitalists (indeed, an absence of a personal business interest meant that they could effectively remain neutral between business interests).  The civil servants, however, did remain personally close to the established interests of the country, going to the same schools and universities, intermarrying with their families and pursuing the same hobbies, entertainments and social activities: all the superficial markers that some associate with the ‘upper classes’ of British society.

This came to be termed ‘the Establishment’ in the 1960s, a term which is useful for every outsider group to rail against, not least because of the looseness of its definition.  Everyone currently in office becomes ‘the Establishment’ by default.  Obviously, in the UK this appearance was aided by the rump hereditary aristocracy that continued to haunt the corridors of power, providing many of the personnel for the lumpen political class.  Within these terms, the ‘chummocracy’ of David Cameron was a last hurrah for such an ‘Establishment’. 

Today’s lumpen politicians come through slightly different structures: the established political parties provide career routes (start as an intern, advisor, get a council seat, stand for parliament), and they are kept in touch with the wider needs of the capitalist class through the open corruption of the revolving door, where politicians go on to work as directors or advisors to firms with links with the government, or on the boards of charities and quangos.

Saloon bar bores

The fallout from Brexit is that the Saloon Bar Bore wing of the Tory Party has had power fall into its lap.  The wider chummocracy has always been largely value-free: believing only in taking and holding office for its own sake.  To do that, they’ve needed to recruit true believers, people who can convincingly reach out to win the electoral coalition needed to get to office: otherwise known as fruitcakes and headbangers.  Professional ideologues, often from outside the social circles of the ‘Establishment’, they espoused the necessary Euroscepticism and free market fundamentalism to keep the shopkeepers, farmers and associated big fish in small ponds onside.

Now that they are in charge, they are coming up against both the received wisdom of the bureaucracy of state, as well as the enduring interests of many very large and wealthy firms, not to mention the competing interests of capitalists within a large and necessarily byzantine international structure.  So, they are taking to shooting the messenger, and blaming the officials.  Further, faced as Theresa May is with making some difficult and potentially career-ending choices, she has taken the best politician’s way out: and avoided taking those choices for as long as possible.

Rogers’ farewell missive ended with a reaffirmation of the traditional role of the civil servant:

‘I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power.

I hope that you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them.

I hope that you will continue to be interested in the views of others, even where you disagree with them, and in understanding why others act and think in the way that they do.’

The only extraordinary thing about that is that basic principles only need to be publicly asserted when they are under strain.  The clear point is that it has been taken by most observers to mean that the ministers Rogers has had to deal with have been displaying muddle-headed thinking with ill-founded arguments.  Put another way, the rational point of view of the outsiders is greatly at odds with the rational point of view of career civil servants and the general interest they represent.  That, far from being permanent, Rogers has had to go, indicates where the real balance of power lies, and it is with the elected side of the state, not the entrenched bureaucracy as some like to believe.

Panic on the bridge

Rogers’ letter also shows how difficult the Brexit planning is, as he notes:

‘We do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit.’

Given formal notice of Brexit is due to be given next month, this is an incredible thing to be saying.  Senior diplomatic staff cannot function without direction being given from the very top. If May is not only hiding her negotiating strategy from the public, but also from the officials most in need of political direction, that is a clear sign that it is not Machiavellian, high stakes poker bluffing that is going on, but blind political panic.  Clearly, the Saloon Bar Bores, finding themselves in office, worry they may not be in power.

The real gem given to us by Rogers is this:

‘Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree.’

This is not the voice of a theoretician, but a practical hands-on international trade negotiator.  This has been the socialist case for decades: that markets are not spontaneous, but stem from the infrastructure put in place by the politically dominant class to serve their interests.  It is this reality that is coming into hard collision with the utopians and ideologues who have made up the backwaters of the Tory party.  They need to believe that markets just happen when people are left alone by the state, that they are the natural state of hard-working responsible individuals, because that is the attractive and (in some ways) egalitarian appeal of capitalism to those who are not themselves capitalists (‘it could be you, if you work hard enough’) and the ideological stick used to justify attacking welfare and the public sphere.

It is this contrast between the Tory utopians (and the small proprietors whose worldview they most closely match) and the big capitalists with their global worldview that lies beneath much of the current upheaval in politics.  In the end, the Saloon Bar Bores will find that the enemy is not ‘The Establishment’, but the wealth and power of bigger capitalists, and they will have to accommodate to the needs of British industry and finance, one way or another, probably wrapped up in Union Flag gift paper. Otherwise they would need to mobilise a nationalist force.  Such a movement would also have to shackle the working class and any large scale union activity.  Either way, they have nothing to offer the working class, other than not being the current ‘Establishment’ that oppresses them.

Unlike leftists and populists, socialists do not look to the superficialities of the Establishment theory, and its personnel, but look to the actual underlying class interests that structure society.  Whoever’s name is on the brass plate of public office, they are going to have to find themselves working in such a way as to protect profits.  At most they can play one interest off against another, to persuade us all to join in the bunfight.

The lesson is clear, then.  Fundamental change cannot happen without the exercise of political power, and cannot happen without depriving capitalists of their property and profits. 


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