In Brief

Is Britain’s ‘deep state’ fact or a right-wing fiction?

Jacob Rees-Mogg is not alone in accusing bureaucrats of secret meddling

Whitehall

Attacks on civil service and Treasury officials have led to murmurings about a shadowy UK “deep state”, a term usually reserved for rogue US bureaucrats who secretly manipulate American policy.

Talk of Britain’s villainous deep state was revived last week when Buzzfeed published a leaked Brexit analysis that suggested the UK economy would grow more slowly outside the EU than inside.

Brexit Minister Steve Baker stoked the fire, claiming a senior civil servant, Charles Grant, had told him that Treasury staff “deliberately skewed analyses to spell Brexit doom for the UK economy under every scenario bar staying in the customs union”, reports HuffPost. An audio recording of the conversation later proved Baker wrong, however, and he apologised.

But the mea culpa did not stop MP Jacob Rees-Mogg from “doubling down” on the allegation, with an attack on the Treasury and Chancellor Philip Hammond, says The Sun. Citing a 2017 tweet by Grant, Rees-Mogg said: “You just wonder if there isn’t a pattern in that, whether there is some orchestration rather than a constellation of the stars.”

Rees-Mogg is by no means the first person to suggest bureaucrats operate covertly in the clubby Whitehall world. David Cameron’s former advisor Steve Hilton - who now hosts a show on Fox News - also believes something nefarious is going on.

In an article on the Fox News website yesterday, Hilton says former prime minister Tony Blair gave him a “blunt warning about the administrative state and the attitude any incoming government would face from the permanent bureaucracy”.

“You cannot underestimate how much they believe it’s their job to actually run the country and to resist the changes put forward by people they dismiss as ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ politicians,” Blair reportedly told Hilton prior to Cameron taking office.

Back in 2010, Iraq expert Carne Ross wrote an article in The Observer claiming that Britain’s “deep state” of secretive bureaucrats were denying crucial files to the Chilcot inquiry. Commenting on the allegation, OpenDemocracy co-founder Anthony Barnett claimed he heard a loyal minister in the Gordon Brown government “privately refer to ‘the deep state in the Home Office’, implying a reactionary, shaping force that would seek to get its way when it could”.

In this current instance, however, many believe Rees-Mogg is taking a page out of US President Donald Trump’s playbook by attacking a faceless “Establishment” over a perceived anti-Brexit bias.

Andrew Cooper, Cameron’s ex-pollster and a key Remain campaign figure, told The Observer that Rees-Mogg’s attack showed “hard-Brexiteers are the UK manifestation of bullying post-Truth Trumpite alt-right”.

Nick Macpherson, a former chief civil servant at the Treasury, tweeted yesterday: “First it was the socialists, then the unions, the immigrants and Brussels bureaucrats. Now it’s the treacherous Treasury. #fantasyisland.”

A former head of the civil service, Gus O‘Donnell, also says the allegations are without merit.

“If you’re selling snake oil, you don’t like the idea of experts testing your product,” O‘Donnell told ITV’s Peston on Sunday. “And I think that’s what we’ve got - this backlash against evidence and experts is because they know where the experts will go.”

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