October 20, 2023 - 1:00pm

Last week, after Hamas launched its latest campaign of terror against Israel, a government instruction went out for Whitehall departments to fly the Israeli flag for a week as a gesture of solidarity. Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, told his civil servants to follow through with it.

But his staff refused to do so, claiming it would be “taking sides” — which is, of course, exactly the point of the exercise. Three days after the order had been issued, it was reported that Barclay had managed to “persuade civil servants to obey his order”. Then, the flag was taken down again by recalcitrant civil servants, before being possibly put up again, though no one really seems to know.

Meanwhile, Barclay tried to cajole his civil servants into lighting the entrance to the department’s building in the colours of the Israeli flag, but had only managed to have blue light projected in the face of official opposition. Apparently, the department’s projectors, which are quite capable of reproducing the rainbow, could not provide white lighting on that particular occasion.

It is a small incident, but a telling one. On paper, the British executive is in possession of formidable powers, often exercisable with limited parliamentary oversight. Academics and constitutional reformers frequently bemoan the fact while calling for the powers of the executive to be formalised and constrained by legislation.

But as anyone with experience of modern British government knows, this account is errant nonsense. That Barclay was reduced to cajoling his own staff to obey a perfectly straightforward and legal instruction is a feature of the British structure of government, which neatly combines the illusion of limitless theoretical executive power with a system designed to obstruct it at every step.

This dynamic is not limited to the minister-civil service relationship — so memorably satirised by television, to no apparent effect. While Barclay was trying to have a flag raised up a flagpole, Suella Braverman, widely believed to be one of the century’s most authoritarian home secretaries, was reduced to writing a letter to chief constables “encouraging” them to enforce the law while policing anti-Israel demonstrations.

Encouragement was all that she could give, since her powers, though immense on paper, no longer extend to order the police to investigate crimes or to enforce the law in the streets of London. In theory, chief constables should now be held to account to elected police and crime commissioners for their work. But as anyone who has written to one of these worthy officials will know, complaints about policing decisions are dismissed with a vague incantation of “operational independence”, the principle whereby many police forces have given up investigating trivial crimes such as theft and burglary.

All of this has been made worse by a recent tendency to view the civil service as a fourth branch of government whose purpose to check the administration of the day. This theory, quite unknown to generations of British constitutionalists, is now being enthusiastically propounded by certain think tanks which serve as glorified blogs for people with the letters “CB” behind their names.

Yet to merely acknowledge this new trend’s existence can be perilous. When a Conservative Campaign Headquarters email sent under Braverman’s name went out in March, accusing mandarins of obstructing her plan to stop illegal immigration, she was accused by a senior civil service trade union official of breaching the Ministerial Code.

Home Office staff responded to the accusation with fury in an internal employee forum, where they also discussed
 how to obstruct the Home Secretary’s plans. Two months later, with no sense of irony, Home Office staff threatened to go on strike to stop the Rwanda plan from being implemented.

Now 13 years into the current Conservative government, there is little prospect of anything being done to change this toxic dynamic. Having given up trying to solve the problem at a structural level, ministers content themselves with having their special advisers leak tales of bureaucratic obstructionism to the Tory Party press, a formula guaranteed to generate clicks but which amounts to a confession of impotence. The modern Sir Humphrey, having traded the old school tie for the diversity lanyard, lives on.

Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.