With the United Kingdom in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus cases and with Boris Johnson’s approval rating rapidly deteriorating, one could be forgiven for thinking that the British government lacks both a sense of mission and control. What it does have is a new mission control: a “NASA-style” headquarters on Whitehall, adjacent to 10 Downing Street, from which Johnson’s powerful aide Dominic Cummings leads a team with which he hopes to revolutionize Britain: “levelling up” the British economy, delivering a deal with the EU that lives up to the promise of Brexit, and reimagining Britain’s place in the world. So far, the new HQ doesn’t seem like much: according to one official, it was more call center than Cape Canaveral when the advisors moved in last month. Nonetheless, the move out of Downing Street is symbolic of what is arguably the keystone of the Johnson agenda: a rewiring of the British state, a step that the prime minister’s inner circle sees as essential if they are to deliver on other fronts. As Michael Gove, the second most powerful elected British official, said in July, “if government is to reform so much, it must also reform itself.”
If there was a sense before the pandemic that the reality of the British civil service was at odds with the high esteem in which it held itself, Covid-19 has only underscored the gap between reputation and reality. The U.K. has endured one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks and, fairly or unfairly, the civil service has taken a healthy share of the blame, not least from politicians eager to deflect. Johnson himself has said that during the worst weeks of the pandemic, parts of the government “seemed to respond so sluggishly, sometimes it seemed like a recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run, and your feet won’t move.” In an unattributed quote in The Atlantic last month, one senior government adviser put it more bluntly: “We’ve had our arse handed to us recently.” This week, it emerged that the government had undercounted six days of coronavirus case numbers—amounting to 15,000 cases—because of a mistake in a spreadsheet, leaving more than a whiff of incompetence.
Johnson is busy on other fronts, too. He has parted ways with Sir Mark Sedwell, his most senior civil servant; looked to widen the net when it comes to who controls government hires; and plans to restructure Public Health England, the organization that oversees the NHS. Earlier this year, Johnson merged the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. And the government is reportedly considering an even more controversial move, with a major restructuring of local government to increase the number of directly elected mayors and reduce the number of local councils.
Cummings—who, in 2014, wrote that “the people at the apex of political power (elected and unelected) are far from the best people in the world in terms of goals, intelligence, ethics, or competence”—thinks that the permanent civil service contains too many humanities graduates and not enough scientists. He thinks that it is overcautious and defensive, with departments jealously guarding turf rather than collaborating. As part of the shake up, he put out a call for “misfits and weirdos” to join his team earlier this year.
His diagnosis echoes previous criticisms of Whitehall. The 1968 Fulton Report, commissioned by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, described the civil service as “still fundamentally the product of the 19th century” and complained of Whitehall’s surfeit of “gifted laymen moving from job to job.” The furious response from within the corridors of power ensured that proposed reforms were blunted. “I would far rather be ruled by men who were familiar with the tragedies of Sophocles, who had a grounding in the wisdom of Socrates and Plato and then topped it up by a wide reading of Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke and Stuart Mill than by one who was an expert electronics engineer or a first-class nuclear physicist,” read a particularly vituperative rebuttal in the Daily Express.
Today, it seems, Britain has a civil service with neither technical expertise nor much grounding in Socrates. If the preponderance of generalists is an old problem, it is worsened by more recent challenges. British government has metastasized since the sixties: quangos filled with mediocre bureaucrats have proliferated, making decisions that affect Britons’ lives without much democratic accountability. When these legally independent organizations slip up, the relevant government minister takes the blame, without having as much power as the average voter assumes. That mismatch must change.
The fact that the Johnson government’s criticisms of the civil service are so familiar suggests that there is some truth to them. But it also hints at the obstacles to reforms. A government that wants to take on the civil service has little margin for error, and, unfortunately, the Johnson government is developing a worrying tendency of lurching from one crisis to another. Unless its breaks that habit, Johnson and his team are unlikely to succeed where more competent governments have failed.
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