Centrist Sensibility

James Ball & Andrew Greenway, Bluffocracy

Biteback Publishing, 128pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781785904110

reviewed by Peter Mitchell

Anyone acquainted with the history of the British state, whatever that is, has some idea of the Northcote-Trevelyan report, the 1854 document that catalysed the creation, overseen largely by Sir Charles Trevelyan, of the modern Civil Service. To a lot of civil servants it’s a kind of Year Zero, to be spoken about in reverent terms; to historians it’s a bit more complex, but still the presiding single moment of the consolidation of the liberal-bureaucratic state in the UK. Northcote-Trevelyan crops up quite early on in James Ball and Andrew Greenway’s Bluffocracy. Published as part of a series entitled ‘Provocations’, Bluffocracy is a stocking-filler-sized essay on the plague of chancers, gentleman amateurs and outright frauds currently dominating public life, and how the culture of ‘bluffing’ – nurtured in Oxford PPE tutorials, refined through the class system’s economies of entitlement and the professions’ structures of credit and advancement - has undermined politics, the civil service and the press.

In Ball and Greenway’s telling, Sir Charles Trevelyan was one of the rare heroes of the mid-Victorian civil service, like his patron William Gladstone or James Stephen at the Colonial Office: working herculean hours, mastering the minutiae of government to a Talmudic level of detail, and usually fired by furious rectitude and evangelical Protestantism, these men kept the British state running while the rest of the bureaucracy was staffed by drunks, time-wasters and disappointing younger sons. With Gladstone’s encouragement, Trevelyan drove a revolutionary reform to the civil service: opening it up to competitive examination, weakening the hand of patronage, imposing some conformity in grades and structures, and generally bringing Britain into line with the increasingly professionalised state bureaucracies emerging in Europe. The apparatus that emerged by the 1860s wasn’t exactly meritocratic, but it demanded a degree of competence and appropriate skills, and exacted a degree of commitment, effort and esprit de corps from the servants of state.

This is all more or less true, and Northcote-Trevelyan appears in Bluffocracy largely as it does in the standard imaginary of the British state: as a moment at which the country grew up, straitened its tie and attained the serene ideal of the liberal-bureaucratic state. Towards the end of the book, Ball and Greenway even suggest that a second Northcote-Trevelyan (or, failing that, a major war) might do a world of good in terms of sweeping the dead wood out of government.

What is missing here is context. What drove the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms from within was empire, and it was empire that provided the model for the reformed Civil Service. The East India Company had been training and examining its functionaries to be capable, informed technocrats since the foundation of its college at Haileybury in 1801, and the government of India was in some senses the only properly meritocratic organisation in the state throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It offered the possibility of enormous success for anyone who could pass entrance exams in South Asian languages, mathematics, book-keeping and minute-writing, survive his first few years of the climate, and either rise through the ranks or secure a lucrative enough line in peculation. Through this highly professionalised civil service - one which prized both depth and breadth of knowledge - the Company, and after it the India Office, was able to retain control of British India with a staff of only a few thousand. As in Britain’s wider empire, this state apparatus proved wildly successful in annexing territory, building infrastructure, infiltrating economies, imposing laws, altering societies, expropriating resources, organising famines and prosecuting wars. Trevelyan himself was schooled in the East India Company’s government in Calcutta; later, from his post in the Treasury, he oversaw Irish famine relief. His unwavering belief in the wisdom of free markets, allied to his suspicion that the starving Irish weren’t entirely human were contributing factors in the death of one million people and the emigration of another million. Everything worked largely as it was supposed to. The problem wasn’t in the execution.

I imagine it seems churlish to mention this sort of thing. All Ball and Greenway really mean, when they bring up Northcote-Trevelyan, is to invoke a moment at which a state run by idiots and chancers, where few qualifications were really required to take the wheel except privilege, was whipped into shape and made a little bit more accountable, a little bit more accessible, a little bit more serious. And that’s what this book is, really: a polemic against non-seriousness in government and public life. It starts with a lengthy bit on PPE at Oxford, which both of the authors took as a degree. It’s quite an entertaining tour of the abject foolishness of the system which schools an inordinate number of the people who direct politics, policy and discourse; it’s astute on how the forms of knowledge, attainment and sociability taught in the tutorial and the exam schools structure the theatres of power, and how much damage that consonance causes. It acknowledges in a passing way how exclusive this closed loop is, and the role of pose and affect in constructing cultures of power, without ever quite grappling with the problem of capital - social, educational, cultural - and the larger structures of exclusion it enforces beyond Oxford, beyond the Russell Group, beyond even (imagine it!) higher education. There are solid sections on the ways in which performative confidence outranks expertise in the civil service, and some uncontroversial observations on how tightened economies of scale and volume have produced a media unable to respond meaningfully to the national scene, and reliant on quick-take culture, lobby chumminess and the gross mummery of the attention economy to get by. Between David Davis and his non-existent sectoral analyses, the 24-year-old political journalism staffer and fast-stream civil servant climbing the greasy pole towards mandarinhood at the cost of knowing the first thing about their job, Ball and Greenway argue, the ship of state has begun to spring some worrying leaks.

Bluffocracy’s main intervention is to point this out, and to suggest some ways of plugging the holes. Ball is a data journalist known for a slightly obtuse centrism; Greenway is a former civil servant fast-streamer who has forged a freelance career suggesting sensible ways that the civil service might do better. It’s clear throughout Bluffocracy that it’s intended as a largely technocratic intervention: its concerns are with policy rather than politics, returning the state to some imagined anterior functionality rather than considering why everything might look so, well, worrying. This isn’t necessarily a problem: Ball and Greenway’s prescriptions, insofar as they’re legible, are largely decent ones. The civil service needs to run better, journalism needs depth of experience and knowledge rather than fast-turnaround content mills, and there isn’t a sector of British public life that couldn’t do with purging itself of PPE grads. These are desperately noncontroversial ideas.

Where Bluffocracy runs into problems is in thinking that any of this has much to do with what ails us. It isn’t the kind of book that would have been commissioned were everything not on fire, but it also seems programmatically averse to thinking about why things got so hot. The problem, it seems to suggest, is that certain gremlins in the machine of the state have allowed idiots, carnival barkers and charlatans to take the wheel: the institutions that produced figures like Davis, or indeed Michael Gove or Boris Johnson, are in need of some militant tweaking to make everything run smooth again. But ideology gets lost somewhere. The problem with the Goves, Johnsons and Davises isn’t that they’re bluffers or liars or frauds, although it would certainly be nice if they weren’t these things. No, the problem with these people is that they’re shits.

Form and content, in government as in everything else, exist in dialectical relationship. The evolution of the bureaucratic form, the carbon copy, the state archive and the digital database all made new forms of relationships between people thinkable, opening up new possibilities of kindness or cruelty. Some forms are likely to produce worse outcomes both for states and for people, and the Oxford tutorial and the PPE cramming cycle, as Ball and Greenway rightly argue, are poor tools for producing states that work efficiently. What they omit is the content: what’s being communicated in those tutorials and who it benefits, and what kinds of politics those learned skills, once applied in the service of power, are most suited to advancing.

This absence makes itself most keenly felt during bits on the Windrush scandal and Brexit. On Windrush, Ball and Greenway’s describe the scandal as a result of the ‘hostile environment’ policy being, simply, badly managed. As so often, the people who were made responsible for its implementation were no longer there by the time problems appeared; the buck got passed, the machinery fell apart, and terrible mistakes were made. The whole thing, in their reading, is a result of ‘high-level dilettantism . . . because the top of the civil service is structured around supporting ministers, prestige is found in moving around as what ministers want changes, rather than sticking with a specialism.’

On Brexit they note the dishonesty of the Leave campaign, the £350 million figure on the side of the bus, and so on; and then, in wondering why such an obviously mendacious campaign proved so effective, they note that the Remain campaign was ‘somewhat out of touch . . . [coming] a decade or so into a pay freeze for the nation, and six years into austerity.’ And: ‘it also cannot have helped that the public had got endlessly used to hearing the in-game-focused language of the bluffer . . . After years of having to parse the intellectual non-denial denials, evasions and rhetorical tricks that come with the bluffocracy, the public could easily be forgiven for having had enough, for losing trust in all concerned.’

In neither account do the authors consider that, while Windrush and Brexit might be considered failures in terms of policy, in terms of politics – specifically where those politics are racism, metric tonnes of it, dumped year by year on a UK and international electorate by parties of all stripes, for a variety of reasons from the crudely electoral to the sincerely exterminist, and deeply ingrained into the practices and structures of the state at every level – they both look like roaring successes.

This is where it becomes clear – assuming that the whole framing of the book hadn’t already made it so – that Bluffocracy is a footnote to the flourishing genre of Sensiblist Complaint. The general thrust of such productions is that things have got out of hand; that charlatans and frauds have got ahold of the organs of state, that whole populations have ceased to find common ground, that truth itself has been traduced. The number of books with the frankly startling coinage ‘Post-Truth’ in the title – of which Ball’s previous title is one – should give some clue as to how profitable this line of thought is to the publishing industry. ‘Post-Truth’ encapsulates rather neatly the central premise of this genre: that there was a Blessed Before-Time (currently from about the end of the Cold War to 2016) in which consensus was basically universal, ideology as such was a canard, politics was a matter of rational and convivial disagreement between colleagues and all states were legitimate except the ones we destroyed. This seems to be the structure of feeling by which Third Way politics’ notional consensus is mourned. It’s fair enough in its way, though not particularly productive; and if some of its expressions are, let’s say, surprisingly friendly to the resurgent radical Right that they’re ostensibly written to counter, that isn’t necessarily relevant here. The authors of Bluffers are likely to argue that, in not mentioning the elephant in the room with reference to Windrush and Brexit, they’re simply staying in their lane. But what Bluffocracy takes from the current centrist imaginary is a deafness to ideology so thoroughgoing as to become less an omission than an active refusal to describe what’s in front of your nose.

This is particularly virulent in the sections on the media. The authors propose some sensible structural tweaks to the profession, such as reforming the lobby, rotating journalists around more, and dealing with the more corrosive effects of the attention economy. They want to see people with analytic depth, experience and humility get on, rather than fast-talking PPE shysters. All fair enough, in a limited way. But the main thrust of these suggestions, as encapsulated in the book’s closing argument, is that ‘it would be better if newspaper leader columns weren’t written by twenty-four-year-olds.’

You wonder if they’ve considered who owns newspapers, who edits them and who decides what the they pump into the discourse, day after day. You wonder if it has occurred to them that, in actual fact, the system is working just fine; that 24-year-olds who desperately want to get on in their career might be, in fact, the ideal people to fill the pages of the Times with slanders against trans people or the leader columns of the Mail with balls-out pogrom rhetoric – especially when they can always argue that a stint promoting hatred in the gutter press is a necessary apprenticeship to the trade, which in no way compromises the decency of the individual hack. The centrist or technocratic fetish of separating policy from politics, of leaving everything to experts, cedes politics all the ground it needs to wreak cruelty, and little of the support it needs to do kindness.

By the end, you wonder where the imaginative horizon of this kind of centrism lies: what are its maximal demands? That the hostile environment policy be implemented properly, by people of experience and knowledge? That a continent-wide nativist spasm that threatens to destroy pretty much everything you can think of be countered with better fact-and-policy-based corrections? That the trains run on time, regardless of who’s on board and where they’re going?

There are two moments in Bluffocracy that get, I think, to the heart of its impoverishment. One is at the end, when, in enumerating the structures of domination it would like to see eased in public life, it lists – amongst such items as ‘more women, less men’, and ‘more black people, less white’ – a startling demand: ‘more Russell Group, less Oxbridge’. You wonder if it’s a slip for something less bizarrely unambitious. It is not.

The second is a footnote – one of many, most of them gratingly jocular, self-deprecating in a way that comes across only as insufferably smug – attached to a discussion of Toby Young’s botched appointment to the board of the Office for Students. A terrible balls-up, according to Ball and Greenway: how could the government possibly have managed to appoint, to a body formulated entirely to troll universities and chill student activism, a man whose only public function is to flounce about on Twitter and in the pages of the Spectator taking his clothes off and bleating about how universities are ‘left-wing madrassas’? A terrible mistake, surely. The footnote reads:

‘We did not expect the topic of eugenics to arise once, never mind twice, when we set out researching this book.’

Seriously? Didn’t you?