Is the UK Subject to a Deep State? Liz Truss and the Civil Service

By: Jai Jethwa

Politics has moved frenetically in recent weeks. There has been the appointment of a new First Minister in Scotland, the drama of England’s local elections, and, inevitably, countless headlines over the Government’s Rwanda plan as it entered the UK statute book late last month. During times like these, stories that deserve some serious dissection can disappear from the headlines fairly quickly, when in quieter moments they might warrant days of front-page coverage. One such story is the publication of Liz Truss’ recent memoir-cum-manifesto, Ten Years to Save The West, the 320-page account of her 49-day tenure at Downing Street at the tail-end of 2022. The book is a perfect reflection of its author: strikingly candid in its assessment of political rivals, cynically paranoid when scrutinising Whitehall culture, and, yes, a little bit barmy too (we’ve all watched that pork markets clip on YouTube repeatedly, let’s not pretend otherwise). 

Perhaps the big theme of Truss’ book is what she calls ‘the tyranny of the technocracy’ the conniving SW1 bureaucrats that, in her view, undermined her administration, leading to her rapid departure from Number 10. In Truss’ eyes, it was the ‘deep state’ the mandarins of the Treasury, (not least the turfed-out Permanent Secretary Tom Scholar), together with the Bank of England and Office for Budget Responsibility that colluded against her and derailed her economic agenda. Truss ends the book with a warning to future hopeful true-blue Conservatives — fail to address this rottenness at the heart of the state at your own misfortune. It is quite an extraordinary feat for a former Prime Minister to take such a conspiracist view of the political system so soon after leaving office. On that measure alone, it deserves some unpacking.

This notion of a deep state in politics isn’t new. In the US, the terminology has been on the fringes of the political lexicon since the 1950s. Undoubtedly, however, it reached mainstream popularity during the Trump administration, when the President used it to discredit any government officials who had the gumption to question his agenda. Whilst critics of Trump have said accusations of a deep state are completely baseless, it hasn’t stopped his supporters from parroting the phrase, wielding it to delegitimize his detractors, often in online spaces. The term has become elastic — anyone not onboard with the Trump programme can be classed as part of the deep state, even those who clearly served under Trump and favoured him at one point. As Trump battles for a chance for re-election, Liz Truss has cosied up to US conservatives, warning anyone in the US who will listen that the potential second Trump administration may be again derailed by the deep state cabal. In making this play, Truss has also made it clear that she believes she was toppled by an equivalent deep state in the UK.  At the core of this, she suggests, are the government officials on Whitehall who sought their own self-preservation at the expense of enacting her policies. In both the US and the UK, key to deep-state conspiracist thinking is the idea that an unelected elite operating within the state will thwart the democratic will of the people to maintain its hold on power. It follows that seemingly anti-democratic measures are justified when employed to defeat the plans of such figures and enact the people’s will.

In this blog, I’ll briefly trace the foundational qualities of our own bureaucracy through the creation of the modern civil service, including its adherence to impartiality, which Truss and her supporters see the deep state as a deviation from — obstacles to government policy, rather than facilitators of it as is set out in key founding documents. I also look at how Truss borrows her ideology on the bureaucracy from Thatcherism, but goes much further in her rhetoric. Finally, I consider some ways in which some future reform might help make the role of the civil service in political decision-making more transparent, so that rhetoric like Truss’ might be better rebutted in the future. 

The origins of impartiality

There are complex constitutional pressures under which civil servants operate. Civil servants are expected to show total fealty to their ministers, and yet must also challenge them and ‘speak truth to power’. They are expected to balance both duties whilst remaining totally impartial. This notion of impartiality was a principle inborn from the outset of the modern civil service, as was first formulated in the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854. That report, essentially the keystone of what remains today of the civil service, recommended the establishment of a politically neutral, merit-based permanent civil service that would end the patronage-based system that preceded it. Then, in 1918, at the end of the First World War, the Haldane report essentially affirmed the Northcote-Trevelyan report, establishing the symbiotic relationship between ministers and officials that exists today. In essence, that relationship can be summarised as ministers making political decisions based upon sound consultation of civil servants’ research and institutional memory. Constitutionally, both ministers and their administrators have a shared responsibility to deliver sensible public policy — ministers captain the ship, set direction and are accountable if the vessel veers off-course, but administrators keep the engine running below and anticipate reefs. 

These two founding reports, which created the ‘Westminster model’ of ministers and civil servants working hand-in-hand together for the public good, painted a pretty picture. Since the 1970s onwards, however, this relationship between minister and civil servant has become increasingly uneasy. 

Increasing uneasiness between politicians and their administrators

In my view, the decline in this relationship began under Thatcher, who, influenced by the efficiency of the private sector, set about reforming the civil service by reducing its headcount substantially. She also pushed many civil servants into executive agencies. Here, they would be expected to get on with the mechanical business of government — getting the grunt work ‘done’ and reducing the headcount of civil servants involved in actual policy formulation. Perhaps most crucially, Thatcher also set in place a more adversarial dynamic between civil servants and their political masters. The Prime Minister wanted to work with Whitehall mandarins, but only in the context of what she deemed ‘party sovereignty’, i.e. that civil servants were there primarily to implement the will of the government. In Thatcher’s eyes, therefore, any inability to act by civil servants amounted to an entrenched, ideological lack of will to engage with her political agenda. The consequence of this became that civil servants felt less able to challenge the preferences of ministers, even when it was their constitutional duty to do so. 

Like much else, Thatcher’s attitude toward the civil service changed conservatism as a political force in the latter half of the twentieth century. It marked a turning point, particularly in Conservative circles, after which the civil service was more routinely viewed as an institutional constraint to the political ambitions of the Party. To the Thatcherite set, Whitehall mandarins were a clique of unchanging bureaucrats with deep networks built over years, who were there to check political ambitions and ‘run the show’ according to their own interests. Though Truss doesn’t explicitly state so in her book, it seems clear the anti-civil service rhetoric contained within is an ode to her personal political hero

In her book, in addition to claiming that the bureaucracy derailed her economic plans, Truss also suggests that civil servants are too politicised to enact hardline Conservative policies. There is some evidence of this in recent years. In 2022, at the height of the ‘small boats’ debate, posters appeared in the Home Office satirising the government’s policy of stopping migrants from entering UK waters by framing the nation’s beloved Paddington Bear as a would-be deported immigrant. An anonymous Guardian comment piece by the civil servants behind the posters followed. The posters and comment piece were counter-effective, giving hard evidence to those who believed in the deep state conspiracy – here, for all to see, were supposedly apolitical public servants acting in line with their own political views, mobilising against the Government’s agenda. 

In reality, these small spontaneous instances of opposition do not represent the huge numbers of civil servants getting their heads down and managing the day-to-day running of the state. Indeed, many civil servants know it is part of the Civil Service Code, introduced in 1996, that it is their duty to stand down if they personally cannot see through ministers’ priorities. But episodes like this will continue to fuel the claims made by Truss and other detractors that deep state operators take a ‘pick and choose’ approach to which policies they decide to back.

Potential reform

Where does this all lead us? Clearly, the rosy ‘Westminster model’ picture of ministers working happily with the backing of their civil servants, as set out in the Northcote-Trevelyan and Haldane reports, is a far throw from where we are at today. Those reports codified that good government relied on the co-operation between both sets of actors. Now that that relationship is soured, what can be done? 

Lord Maude, a former Cabinet minister himself, published his own report at the end of 2023 on the subject of civil service reform. It is worth revisiting, as it contains many timely reflections which might improve transparency in the civil service. Lord Maude makes the argument that civil servants should play a more public role in the lifespan of the policy process. He says that civil servants should be allowed to speak up in Cabinet committee meetings, that they should play a more visible role in the evaluation of policies (especially those that are bungled) at select committee hearings and that they should be protected constitutionally in speaking truth to power. The effect this would have would be to drag the work of the bureaucracy into the light and therefore easily discredit notions of a shadowy cabal working at the centre of the state for their own good. 

Making civil service roles more public facing and allowing civil servants to have a louder voice could give the public a more nuanced view of government policy. Accounting for how they worked with ministers, what evidence they proposed to ministers, how it was received and explaining issues in getting policy done on the ground would help protect civil servants from hollow statements from ministers that it was the fault of the Whitehall ‘machine’ when policy fails to be enacted or achieve its goals. 

Concluding notes

Liz Truss’ claims of a deep state are not the first of their kind. Nor is the book in which she outlines supposed conspiracies to stop her the first political memoir which seeks to exonerate its author. By pouring focus onto the deep state and declaring the need for reform of the bureaucracy, which is not itself without merits, Truss intends to distract from her own failings as Prime Minister. 

Ultimately, Ten Years to Save the West has as much to do with Truss making a name for herself anew as a commentator and right-wing firebrand in the US as it does with recounting her time in government. Nevertheless, we should take seriously the degree to which some modest constitutional reform might give more clarity and visibility to the role of administrators in the political process. Their right to challenge and test the policies of government are, in fact, a constitutional safeguard that Truss ran up against during her time in power. 

What Truss sees as a deep state agitating against her is in fact the British state working effectively, keeping in check an overzealous executive. A small amount of reform might reinforce these safeguards, and at the same time, bring to light the work of public servants. Ignoring potential reform which might improve transparency could have disastrous effects, and give further impetus to conspiracist agitators who are lent greater legitimacy now that the voice of a former Prime Minister has joined their chorus.

Jai Jethwa.

Jai Jethwa holds a BA in Politics from the University of York. He has worked as a public affairs consultant and in the BBC’s central press office, as well as in the civil service in the Cabinet Office and the Department for Transport. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.