Tweet Follow @RPJblog
By Jason Michael
British democracy and the institution of its limited constitutional monarchy are fictions. They operate in order to hide the workings of real power, power over which our limited democracy has absolutely no say.
Real power in the modern bureaucratic state is always in the hands of unelected civil servants behind the scenes. In the United Kingdom these senior civil servants – the Directors and Permanent Secretaries of the various Ministries and government departments – remain in office as Prime Ministers and temporary governments come and go. Their connection to the honours system indicates that their first loyalty, rather than being to the state qua the elected government, is to the royal establishment behind their orders and decorations.
This power structure is anything but transparent. Considering the positions these people hold it stands to reason the public should have some information about them. We seldom read or hear of them in the media, and when we do their roles and influence over the government is never articulated. Yesterday I asked a colleague who Philip Rutnam’s father was, and her answer – as I expected – was, “who is Philip Rutnam?”
Of course there will be people who know exactly who characters like Robert Devereux, Philip Rutnam, and Tom Scholar are, but this doesn’t change the fact that the public at large aren’t really encouraged to know about them. But given that these senior civil servants have the clout to declare government decisions invalid and that they remain in their positions regardless of what government has been elected, who they are is very much in the public’s interest.
After a night of digging I am still none the wise about Rutnam’s father; I know next to nothing about his family connections to the British establishment, but what I do know is that he followed a typical route into the job he has. He went to school at Dulwich College, a private school in the south of England founded in 1619, before going on to study at Cambridge and Harvard. At 22 he entered the civil service and went to work in the Treasury, got himself a gig with the global financial services firm Morgan Stanley in British controlled Hong Kong before taking up a post in the Office of Communications – where he was a member of the board – and then in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills as Director General.
With no more than an undergraduate degree he made it to the highest levels of the British civil service in just over 20 years. Following a stint at the Department of Transport as its permanent secretary he was appointed permanent secretary at the Home Office on 5 April 2017. On the surface his curriculum vitae reads like that of an over-achiever, but when we look into the career trajectories of the 42 people in the British civil service at permanent secretary and second permanent secretary level we find this pattern of career progression to be completely typical.
Philip Rutnam – coming from an upper-middle-class family, having been sent to an élite private school, had the Oxbridge experience, before joining the civil service and taking the golden elevator to the top – is unexceptional as a senior civil servant. Rutnam is the rule rather than the exception.
Looking over the list of departmental permanent secretaries we find a preponderance of post-nominal letters – the CBs, KCMGs, KCVOs, and others of the British royal honours system. These high ranking public royal servants are all Knights and Dames of the Order of the Bath – the fourth-most senior of Britain’s Orders of Chivalry, and this is no accident. A royal honour is one of the perks of the job, with it being usual for permanent secretaries to be knighted after five years of service; thus cementing their loyalty to Britain’s unelected royal establishment and guaranteeing them a salary that puts that of the Prime Minister in the shade. Naturally they are paid more than elected leaders because, in the British constitutional hierarchy, they are more important.
There are a handful of permanent secretaries paid the same or a little less than the most senior elected politicians, but this is principally due to the fact that their dicasteries are – in the very grand scheme of things – less important. Those with real power, as is the case in the Cabinet Office, the Home Office, and the Ministry of Defence – for example, are paid accordingly.
When we describe these unelected and senior members of the British curia as having “real power” we have to acknowledge also that they are not running the show either. They are – unlike the elected government – members of the real government, and as such are merely administrators of the power entrusted to them. Real power is located in the system that honours them – the Crown. It is something of an enduring myth in the United Kingdom that the Queen, as head of state, has nothing more than titular or symbolic power; holding an honorary position at the discretion of an elected government of plebs in the House of Commons.
This would be to misunderstand the legislative limitations placed on the Lower House at Westminster. Regardless of what has been written, Britain’s constitutional monarchy is not – and never has been – a monarchy limited by parliament. In Britain the constitutional monarchy, which exercises power by other means, is a faux democracy in which parliament is bound by various systems of law, fealty, privileges, and honours over which the monarchy and the royal establishment hold sway. Thus it is and thus it has always been.
Britain is no different with regard to its power structure than any other bureaucratic state. Power is not truly in the hands of the people – the demos or the representatives it elects. In the modern bureaucratic state, which all democracies are, the locus of power is the upper reaches of the state bureaucracy. What makes the United Kingdom different – even from many other so-called constitutional monarchies – is that this bureaucracy of state is thoroughly dominated by the hegemony of a medieval royal estate. At every level of constitutional government in Britain, from the local, town, and city council to the offices of Whitehall, there operates a system of honours, bribes, and threats – the carrot and the stick – emanating from the Crown.
Without getting into what the Crown is – a subject for another article perhaps – we should note that it is not simply a matter of saying the Queen is boss. Even within the institution of the monarchy the reigning monarch is merely a figurehead. Mrs Saxe-Coburg und Gotha is indeed the visible face of the Crown, but the Crown itself remains a larger institution – all of which is hereditary and unelected.
What is important, especially in the context of Scotland’s campaign for independence, is that we realise and accept that we do not live in a democracy. We are subjects – regardless of what the law says of us being “citizens” – of a foreign monarchy. Scotland is a nation dominated by a more powerful nation in a state union itself dominated by that monarchy and its interests.
The Power behind the Throne
One thought on “British Power: Behind the Scenes of Power in Great Britain”
So what exactly do you think the Crown is? Do tell … 🙂