The definitions do not inspire confidence. Google’s highlights it as “excessively complicated administrative procedure”. They define a bureaucrat as someone who is “perceived as being concerned with procedural correctness at the expense of people’s needs”. Why have we allowed those who specialise in their field and epitomise separation of powers to be presented in such poor light? This article will begin to answer that question, looking at the historical foundations of bureaucracy in Britain and attempting to articulate where it may be heading.
Notorious bureaucrat-buster Nigel Farage has, since his party have been in the European Parliament, complained of the ‘red tape’ and the ‘bureaucratic nature’ of the European Union. It is understandable – it is an easy target which he can bully and mock. However, this speaks to a more serious issue in our society, which started with legitimate complaints but has since been moulded (arguably by vested interests) into a political tool.
Bureaucracy in History
The first identifiable Western civil service was in the 18th Century as a response to the growing British Empire. However, this was inspired by Imperial Chinese bureaucracy and the ‘imperial examinations’ which selected candidates to be in the service which had been around for over 1,000 years in the Sui Dynasty. The British developed this system within the East India Company, which, alongside other institutions like the Office of Works and Naval Board, set the foundations for what would now be considered the civil service.
There were obvious flaws with this system. There was leadership within the departments themselves but it was sporadic at best, and their functions unclear. The overarching government – and Monarch – of the period diminished their purpose. However, as time progressed and the roles of the East India Company became the roles of the central government, this system desperately needed modernisation. This led to the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report which came as the Crimean War proved the inadequacies of the current system. This system remained in place for the next century, until the Second World War once again raised questions about the state and efficiency of public services – an issue which would only intensify following the establishment of the National Health Service.
These issues highlighted following the end of the Second World War are ones which, even today, have not been fully resolved. They included; the lack of working class recruits, a perceived lack of professionalism, a need to enhance the roles of technical and scientific experts and the fact the service was considered too remote. The establishment of bodies, for example the Central Politics Review Staff under Edward Health, did little to end these problems, with Thatcher scrapping the so-called ‘Think Tanks’ after the 1983 election.
With bureaucracy seemingly out of hand – despite (or perhaps in spite) of the presence of technocratic governments in Germany – Margaret Thatcher moved in to enact what one observer called “the most radical shake-up in the British civil service for a century”. The crux of these reforms was the splitting of the two roles of the civil service – providing governments with advice and implementing government policy. This was designed to be a ‘two birds, one stone’ decision which would lead to a more streamlined and lean civil service but also one which could better carry out government policy, with no distractions from local governments. A great example of this is the Greater London Council which was dissolved to make way for much weaker local borough councils which could do less to protect against unpopular legislation.
This is where the issue lies in regard to bureaucracy. Half would argue that the bloated and unhelpful civil servants were a money pit of duplicated roles and poor organisation (as the Conservatives did in their 1983 manifesto, where they described councils as a “wasteful and unnecessary tier of government”) but the rest would argue that they provide a significant role in checking government actions and proposed legislation whilst also giving the UK a stronger sense of quasi-federalism and creating a greater bond with EU institutions. It is for this reason that bureaucracy tends to be such an unpopular word amongst Murdoch tabloids and right-wing politicians, like Mr Farage.
One of the key arguments of the Leave campaign was the idea of cutting through the ‘red tape’ (of free trade?) and being out from under the thumb of the European bureaucrats. However, it would seem plainly obvious that the best possible set up that could be hoped for with our biggest trading partners would be one without tariffs or checks which, if they existed, would actually increase bureaucracy. In spite of this, that decision has been made. The future of bureaucracy, however, is not certain. Theresa May’s attempts to subvert the role of Parliament in the Article 50 proceedings suggests that she will continue to rule in the Presidential way we have seen previous Prime Ministers, like Blair and Thatcher lead, which could spell trouble for those in the public sector.
With that said, the upcoming Brexit negotiations will undoubtedly see some of the most high-profile civil servants, like the recently departed Sir Ivan Rogers, coming to the fore. These typically absent figures will almost certainly be the ones who have the final say in the deal that is handed to post-Brexit Britain, the outcome of which few politicians are likely to weather as well as them.