Written by Peter Housden.
As a Permanent Secretary, you yearn for a theory of the state. In media res, you face a relentless flow of matters large and unbelievably small, multifarious actors strut the stage and you try to provide purpose and leadership for the several thousand souls in your department. A clear, still voice of reason to enable us to understand the course of history and provide a sense of sanity, proportion, dignity even, in these wonderful jobs would be heaven sent.
A person thus turns to The State As Cultural Practice with high expectations. It is a book with a big reputation that makes bold claims for its significance. We are told to expect ‘a new response to old questions about the nature of the state and how to study it.’ It starts well, situating its concerns within a dense and wide-ranging survey of the literature. Its methodology – seeking to draw meaning through ‘thick descriptions’ developed from interviews and observation in three Whitehall departments between 2001-5 – is rich and potentially generative. But the choice of focus – the day to day work of Ministers and their engagement with departmental reform – is curious and limiting. Why not the engagement of the Department with the world it is seeking to influence? In Education, we held the nation’s future in our hands. In Communities, we were responsible for housing and regeneration through the boom and into the Great Crash. In Scotland, our Ministers were driving for independence. Departmental reform – the internal workings of the organisation – was always a small-scale side show. No-one was interested but knew they had to play the game, lest they be branded ‘awkward’ by some apparatchik with the PM’s ear in Number 10. Why Bevir and Rhodes choose this peripheral focus is an unexplained mystery: it gives the whole show the feel of a 40-watt light bulb.
This disappointment is compounded by the weakness of the analysis. The examination of the cultures that surround Ministerial practices is particularly unreflective. It swallows whole the world satirised so effectively in Yes Minister, presenting it as if it were the state in action, rather than the point of ironic reference it had become in a much more openly-contested and fractious arena by 2001. But even on its chosen terrain of departmental reform, the book offers pale and refracted picture of the much more-significant shifts in public governance associated with New Public Management being enacted in public services in this period of New Labour dirigisme.
The book is also hindered by knowing authorial comment which often contrives to miss the point. Unwarranted significance is attached, for example, the phrase ‘A cauldron of SpAds.’ This painfully-contrived construct is deemed so significant as to merit two separate references to the linguistic richness and hierarchical complexity of Whitehall. And when an official says a planned policy ‘wouldn’t pass the cocktail party test’, it is surely unreasonable to assume, without any further evidence, that the poor soul ‘doesn’t seem to realise that the rest of us never go to cocktail parties and we don’t know anyone who does.’ Here instead surely is an ironic nod to a long-gone lexicon, and one likely to have been deployed to challenge policy obliquely, rather than some pre-Cameroonian toff sounding off.
All in all, Bevir & Rhodes paint a world closed unto itself. We have no sense of the wider pressures that impact on the processes of government. In the real world, a Permanent Secretary has to contend with the way that contentious ideology becomes ‘common sense’ which no amount of evidence and analysis is allowed to shake. These, rather than linguistic niceties and departmental reform, are the determinant realities for Permanent Secretaries and their colleagues. But for Rhodes & Bevir, testimony and perception is allowed be all. There is no theory of power. We are given no clues as to how and why particular accounts and positions have traction and others do not. The state remains just a lot of people rushing about trying to make sense of the world.
Peter Housden served for a decade as a Permanent Secretary in Whitehall and in Scotland, stepping down in 2015 to become, inter alia, a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for British Politics, the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Here’s his take on Bevir & Rhodes’ The State as Cultural Practice – a book aiming to ‘develop a novel theory of the state as meaning in action’ and to ‘show how Ministers, civil servants and citizens construct and reconstruct the stateless state.’