The right is making Britain a normal country. I don’t mean that as a compliment, just as a statement of the dismal fact that in most countries it’s normal for the ruling clique to seek to limit the independence of the judiciary, control state television and fill the taxpayer-funded civil service with cranky ideologues, who will screech out its message, and drones who obey its orders.
Like authoritarian governments everywhere, the Johnson administration wants to rig the system. If you think “that kind of thing doesn’t happen here”, you are suffering from a sentimental version of British exceptionalism. If you say: “Come on, it’s hysterical to compare Johnson to authoritarian leaders”, I’m afraid you haven’t been paying attention.
Because it involves the degradation of the civil service, the Greensill scandal is as much an opportunity for Johnson as a crisis. The right can use the failure of the worst elements in the civil service to even acknowledge the existence of basic ethical standards to justify stuffing public life with Tory cranks and drones.
At least some on the right know it. Labour contrasts the eagerness of ministers to investigate the civil service with their reluctance to let the rest of society investigate them. The government has not published a register of ministerial interests since last July, perhaps because the fate of the Covid contracts would make such interesting reading. The administration can move quickly when it wants to, however. The cabinet secretary gave civil servants just four days last week to report any outside interests that “might conflict” with civil service rules.
Separating the bureaucracy from the governing party is the best way to avoid cronyism and corruption
A well-connected Conservative journalist reports in The Times that “friends of Dominic Cummings”, who appear to be so close to Dominic Cummings you could almost mistake them for Dominic Cummings, want Johnson to focus on reforming the civil service. I bet “his friends” do. The justification for separating the bureaucracy from the governing party is that it’s the best way for a state to avoid cronyism and corruption. Think of the patronage politicians could lavish on the faithful if this week’s revelations about the conflicts of interest of supposedly neutral officials allow them to get their hands on even a part of the civil service budget.
“Reform” should mean cleaning up a system where civil servants can be on a banker’s payroll and no one in a position of authority over them makes a squeak of protest. Their own code, not that they appear to have read it, states that a civil servant must “put the obligations of public service above your own personal interests”, an ideal that can be traced back to 1853 when William Gladstone ordered a review of the corruption within politics.
The venality that once worried Victorian liberals is echoed in 2021. The securement of places in the bureaucracy for the politically well connected bothered them as much as straightforward bribery. “The old established political families habitually batten on the public patronage,” one of Gladstone’s advisers complained. “Their sons, legitimate and illegitimate, their relatives and dependents of every degree, are provided for by the score.” A professional, impartial civil service where jobs depended on success in open examinations rather than nepotism and political preferment was Gladstone’s solution.
Reformers around the world reach the same conclusion today. Southern Europeans use the absence of a permanent civil service to explain why corruption is so prevalent in Spain and Italy. There is an old, white, Anglo-Saxon protestant prejudice that siestas or Catholicism made those countries sleazy, an attitude you could also find in Germany and the Netherlands during the financial crisis. Southern European political scientists understandably prefer facts about how their countries work to Wasp condescension. As one explained, when a party wins control of a typical Spanish city, it hands out jobs to hundreds of supporters. Many of them will feel the need to get rich quick by every available means, in case their party loses the next election. Their masters, meanwhile, are free to enrich themselves without the fear that independent civil servants will denounce them.
Cummings's geeky geniuses turned out to be creepy, rightwing cranks you would move down a train carriage to avoid
Johnson is reviving the old corruption of the 19th century and imitating the corruption that afflicts much of the world today. When he had power, Cummings pretended he wanted to hire geeky geniuses to shake up the country. On closer inspection, his geeks did not turn out to be the stars of Silicon Valley or Jeff Goldblum characters who could save the world from alien attacks. They were creepy, rightwing cranks you would move down a train carriage to avoid. One obscure figure called Andrew Sabisky had to resign after he was found commending eugenics. Johnson pushed forward the better known but no less peculiar Charles Moore and Paul Dacre to take over the regulation of public service broadcasting because he knew he could rely on them to fulfil the right’s dream of making Britain a land that could host its own version of Fox News.
In China, Russia, and every one-party state, and in Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, Poland and the United States, an equally important function of state patronage is to make it clear that loyalty to the party is the best way to secure advancement. You don’t have to proclaim your support for it, you just have to make sure you stay on its right side.
Labour published a study yesterday that showed Johnson had given jobs, advising the government or running government programmes, to 25 of the 94 Conservatives MPs who lost their seat or stood down in the past two general elections. You would know some of their names but most are drones who were rewarded for going along with the leadership.
Labour’s Rachel Reeves told me an anecdote which I found more revealing. Too many of her party colleagues are reporting that business leaders, academics and scientists, who are trying to influence government policy, have walked away from them, saying that the government will shut them out of its debates if it suspects them of talking to the opposition. I’m not saying Tory England is a one-party state. It’s a softer and more cloying version of authoritarianism that afflicts us: a state where there is no limit on how far your stupidity can take you, as long as it suits the interest of the ruling party, and where you should keep on the right side of power or learn to live with the consequences.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist