Good old David Mitchell for laying bare the bonkersness of David Cameron's pathetic showboating over public services
That's precisely what David Cameron thinks about government. He simply can't understand what all the guys in headsets – the civil service – are up to. And he says it's not just him they're annoying – they're pushing past or obstructing the whole private sector. In an extraordinary speech to the Conservatives' spring conference last weekend, he called them the "enemies of enterprise". To him, they're the Klingons.
He said he was "taking on… the bureaucrats in government departments who concoct those ridiculous rules and regulations that make life impossible for small firms". On the face of it, this is simple crowd-pleasing stuff. It's easy to slag off the faceless bureaucrats, who supposedly waste our time and money with all their stupid rules. It's convenient to forget that bureaucrats, or civil servants as they're called when they're not being victimised, don't actually make rules, they just enforce them. Maybe, sometimes, they enforce them officiously. Maybe, sometimes, the processes they "concoct" for enforcing them are unnecessarily time-consuming. Maybe fewer of them could enforce the rules just as effectively. But they don't make the rules, Parliament does.
In seeking to blame the civil service for the rules as well as their enforcement, I think this speech is more sinister than Cameron's usual second-rate demagogy and I'm surprised it didn't attract greater attention. To me, these remarks are just as damaging as the prime minister's disparagement of multiculturalism, which rightly drew criticism, and a truer reflection of his political standpoint. Here he's breaking new ground for his evidence-averse Thatcherite ideological crusade.
The whole premise of this government, of its NHS policy, of the "big society", of the "free schools" initiative is that the public sector sucks. The private sector, according to the Tories, beats it for efficiency every time, can be just as compassionate and, at the top, "rewards enterprise". Meanwhile the top of the public sector merely "pays people more than the prime minister".
But in this speech Cameron takes the argument further. By labelling civil servants as enemies of business, he's trying to make them responsible, not just for the failings of the public sector, but also those of the private: "Every regulator, every official, every bureaucrat in government has got to understand that we cannot afford to keep loading costs on to business," he says. "If I have to pull these people into my office to argue this out myself and get them off the backs of business then believe me, I will do it."
He's always said that, when the state wastes money, it's because of the bureaucrats. Now he's also saying that, if private enterprise fails to grow, prosper or fill the gap that shrinking government creates, that's not a flaw in George Osborne's economic policy, that, too, is because of the bureaucrats. In short, whatever goes wrong is the bureaucrats' fault.
If he can get this to stick, it's a masterstroke. It's what Mao was doing when he declared war on sparrows or intellectuals. In difficult times, deft powermongers deliver up whipping boys for the disgruntled. By picking on civil servants, Cameron has made an excellent choice: they work for him, so it's hard for them to complain; they enforce government policies so if policies fail, he can blame the enforcement; yet if they succeed, he can keep the credit.
As a policy, however, it's meaningless. He can't act separately from bureaucrats, he has to act through them. Everything he does – every transparency initiative, every "big society" clarification document, every restructuring of the NHS or the welfare system, creates work for bureaucrats. He also said in the speech: "There's only one strategy for growth we can have now and that is rolling up our sleeves and doing everything possible to make it easier for businesses to grow", without acknowledging that it's the bureaucrats' sleeves he's talking about, not his own or those of his party faithful.
Cameron also doesn't realise, or is wilfully ignoring, how important our large and basically effective bureaucracy is to our place in the front rank of free nations. Without the civil service, acts of Parliament are only words and elections just millions of little slips of paper, like they are in Afghanistan. Civil servants don't merely oil the wheels, they're the axles that join them. Without them David Cameron and his policies would be no more a government than Ian Hislop sitting in a field being sarcastic would be an episode of Have I Got News For You.