Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
When Donald Trump entered the White House, his then senior adviser, Steve Bannon, set out the administration’s three priorities. First, “national security and sovereignty” (hurrah!) Second, “economic nationalism” (boo!) Third, “the deconstruction of the administrative state” (huh?)
Few Americans had much idea of what “the administrative state” was; but conservative think-tankers and writers were ecstatic. Indeed, Trump’s readiness to act against the administrative state (or the regulatory state) is, along with his judicial appointments, the main reason that they overlook his character flaws and back him.
In Britain, we call it “the quango state”. We mean the alphabet soup of regulatory agencies that can set rules without legislation, raise money without taxation, and impose decisions without accountability. We mean bodies like the Charity Commission, the National Lottery Community Fund, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the Carbon Trust, the Export Guarantees Advisory Council, the Care Quality Commission, the Food Standards Agency, the Low Pay Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office, UK Sport, the Highways Agency and a hundred others.
There may be occasions when MPs need narrowly and contingently to delegate authority. But what has happened in Britain, as in other large democracies, goes well beyond specific outsourced functions. We have seen the growth of an imperium in imperio, a network of bodies staffed by people who think in similar ways, and who pursue their agendas more or less independently of the wishes of Parliament or people.
Naturally, those who share the quangocrat outlook – fondness for higher public spending, obsession with diversity and inclusiveness, enthusiasm for the EU – are untroubled by this state of affairs. But Conservatives have never much cared for it, and fitfully go through phases of scrapping the more obviously obsolete quangos while encouraging people from beyond the Left to apply for the others. This website, for example, runs a regular “Calling Conservatives” feature, aimed at encouraging more Tory applications to some of these bodies. None the less, perhaps inevitably, the system remains dominated by Blairite smoothies.
So pervasive is the soft Left culture in our administrative state that attempts to even the balance are often seen as an invasion, and the few Conservatives who take on positions on even purely advisory bodies can be hounded out of them. Just ask Roger Scruton.
The first task of the new prime minister in a couple of weeks’ time will be to reassert the supremacy of our elected representatives over our functionaries. That might strike you as an eccentric statement. Surely the new Prime Minister’s first task will be Brexit?
Yes, but the two things can no longer be separated. Over the past three years, we have seen large chunks of our standing bureaucracy – civil servants, quangocrats and other officials –working to frustrate the referendum result. The Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office have harassed Vote Leave campaigners. Eurosceptic donors even appear to have been targeted by the tax authorities. At the same time, senior civil servants have taken full advantage of Theresa May’s disastrous readiness to be ruled by official advice.
What I am saying should be uncontroversial. The purpose of having elected ministers at the top of departments is to ensure that those departments – including the quangos they fund – work for the general population rather than for themselves. A minister who simply does what his officials tell him is guaranteed a quiet life. He will be well regarded. He will get a reputation as a safe pair of hands. Approving remarks about him will find their way into the papers. But he is utterly failing to do his job.
Not every Secretary of State is like this, of course. Indeed, the starting line-up in the current Conservative leadership election included some of the ministers who had shown themselves most prepared to impose themselves on their departments. But, in general, May preferred – and offered preferment to – ministers in her own image: that is, ministers who deferred to the experts, said little in public and declined to rock the boat.
Well, that won’t do any more. Not at a time like this. We need the entire government machine to be working to make a success of Brexit. We need to be cutting taxes, especially business taxes, so as to attract investment. We need to be exploiting the regulatory freedoms we acquire as we diverge from Brussels. We need to let our financial services, in particular, compete against their global rivals. We need to remove tariffs and trade barriers, unilaterally if necessary. These things will require an act of collective national endeavour. We simply can’t afford to let Sir Humphrey frustrate things because of his sincere but, in the circumstances, inadmissible belief that we must cling on to every aspect of EU membership.
I’d be tempted to give Michael Gove the task of streamlining our standing functionariat, with Dominic Cummings as his SpAd. That should sort things out.