Politicians versus Bureaucrats: The Latest Skirmish

Douglas Carswell By Steve Punter Via Wikimedia Commons

A Conservative MP has caused rumblings in the Whitehall machine as claims that civil servants have an overbearing influence on policy decisions surfaced this week. Douglas Carswell cited a conversation with a Treasury official as support for the claim that ‘Sir Humphrey’ types were having a predatory effect on what decisions government ministers are allowed to take. But to what extent can MP’s be said to act under the collective bureaucratic thumb?

For anyone for whom the name ‘Sir Humphrey’ does not ring any bells, they should consider watching the BBC’s ‘Yes Minister’ series and less impressively but equally watchable, ‘Yes Prime Minister’. Akin to the impact that Spitting Image made a few years later, ‘Yes Minister’ was a stark look at the machinations of the political system which worked powerfully yet serenely behind the figureheads of government MPs. This particular series, which sparked my interest in following the workings of government and opposition, contradicted the widely held belief of the public that MPs, and ministers in particular, had the ultimate say on the outcome or even creation of departmental policy decisions. Even thirty two years later, this programme still holds true for many of the vagaries of the illustriously silky Sir Humphrey, and the bumbling, blinkered Minister for Administrative Affairs, James Hacker.

The equal to these archive programs is the political parody ‘The Thick of It’, with the star role undoubtedly held by the offensive Malcom Tucker (Peter Calpridi), the Frankie Boyle of chief bureaucrats.  In the same way that ‘Yes Minister’ conveyed the smooth running of the political machine in the 70’s, so too did Malcom Tucker portray the inadequacies of Government Ministers when faced by civil servants numbering in their tens of thousands, with some frightening establishment-style figures running the ‘show’.

The public notion is that elected representatives, otherwise known as Members of Parliament, take decisions on our behalf, and implement policies according to the manifesto of the majority government. This rather comfortable image does not cater for the Alistair Campbells and Andy Coulsons of this world. Innocently coined as Communications Directors or PR Policy Makers, these men who spin, twist, conceal, fabricate and leak to the media are not acting in accordance with MPs and Ministers but on a separate, civil service mandate which has remained relatively unchanged through ten or fifteen governments.

Carswell bought up this issue at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), and requested an answer from David Cameron. Instead of acknowledging and supporting his party member’s foray into the partnership between politicians and bureaucrats, Cameron laughed the issue off. Clearly, an open or frank answer was out of the question.

Still, next time you see an MP fronting a new policy, think: is this a personal belief from a man or woman that was elected? Or is it simply the bureaucratic machine turning out yet another piece of legislation.