Nick Cohen Nick Cohen

Boris Johnson wants a sycophantic civil service

This government may not be good for much but it knows how to manipulate language. Attacks on the ‘establishment’ are the cover it uses to smuggle ideologues and ‘yes’ men into the civil service.

We all hate ‘the establishment,’ don’t we? Even when, and especially if, we have never met a permanent secretary. The establishment, by definition, is hidebound and complacent, white, male, Oxbridge and biased. Although the awkward fact remains that you can only join the civil service by passing competitive examinations, that can quickly be dispensed with.

Since Lord (Michael) Young, father of the better-known Toby, wrote the The Rise of the Meritocracy in 1958, the attacks on competition and merit have become so commonplace a half-decent politics student could repeat them in her sleep. A society based on merit and intelligence is a fraud. It rewards the children of affluent parents who can buy them the best education. As for the poor, dozens of studies show that stress, anxiety and material deprivation hurts their children’s chances. Then there are the weird biases of British society that sees merit in Boris Johnson (who studied Classics at Oxford) and Dominic Cummings (History, Oxford) and allows them to mishandle the Covid pandemic with fatal consequences for tens of thousands of our citizens when leaders with backgrounds in science, assuming we have any, might have saved lives.

The notion of impartiality, meanwhile, has been under attack ever since Karl Marx declared in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, ‘the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. Judges and civil servants might think of themselves as independent but they were nothing more than the servants of the capitalist mode of production.

In our lifetime denunciations of unconscious sexism and institutional racism, have supplemented the denunciations of class bias.

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