Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Origin of a Caste System

(June 1959)

From The Newsletter, 13 June 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

At the annual conference of the Civil Service Clerical Association the general secretary spoke of the malaise among the lower grades due to the still rigid ‘stratification’ of work in government departments.

This has the effect of keeping everything that relates to policy-making a monopoly of the narrow upper circle of officials, recruited directly from the ruling class.

‘The idea that young people are content to go on doing routine work, day in and day out, without any scope for showing what they are capable of doing, is the shortest way to ensure a regular turnover of staff,’ said G.F. Green.

Safeguard against democracy

The caste system in the British Civil Service as we know it today began to be introduced in 1870.

It was a direct result of the Second Reform Act (1867), which had given the vote for the first time to a substantial body of workers.

Robert Lowe, Gladstone’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, who sponsored the Civil Service ‘reform’, said in this connexion that he could ‘fancy no employment more worthy of the philosopher and statesman than the invention of safeguards against democracy’.

What the ‘reform’ did was to establish a bureaucracy so constructed as to keep all real power in the hands of a privileged officialdom drawn from the upper classes.

Gladstone himself remarked: ‘I do not hesitate to say that one of the greatest recommendations of the change in my eyes would be its tendency to strengthen and multiply the ties between the higher classes and the possession of administrative power.’

He understood that the key feature of the ‘reform’ was ‘the separation of work ... into mechanical and intellectual’, with reservation of the latter to a special, separately-recruited grade.

Many experienced officials pointed out at the time that such a separation would not make for efficiency, and that it would be disastrous for the morale of the lower grades, restricted to performing ‘mechanical’ work for the whole of their working lives.

But Robert Lowe was brutally frank. What mattered was that in the controlling positions in the service, deciding policy in discussion with the leaders of capitalist society, should be ‘men whose associations and ideas belong to the class with whom they will have to deal,” possessing that public school and Oxbridge training which ‘gives a sort of freemasonry among men which is not very easy to describe but which everybody feels’.

The Civil Service has been consciously shaped since 1870 as a bulwark of capitalism against the dangers of democracy.

The discontents of the lower grades result from a structure of the service which is essential from the standpoint of Britain’s ruling class.

Realities of ‘the State’

Our colleagues in the New Reasoner circle attribute special importance to the increased role of the State in the British economy.

Remembering John Hughes’s fine article on steel nationalization, it occurs to me that a detailed study of the British State as it is today – not a supra-class abstraction but an organization of men with definite class ties, including Old School ties – would be a most valuable contribution to knowledge of the political facts of life.

The British State, by James Harvey and Katharine Hood, published last year by Lawrence and Wishart, is a good beginning. (I was gratified to find that in one place it draws on a privately-circulated monograph on Civil Service history I wrote ten years ago, even bodily lifting some phrases.)

But we need something that goes further, giving caddish, convincing particulars about individual tie-ups, on the lines of that splendid pre-war study of the parliamentary Conservative Party, Tory MP by Simon Haxey

Afraid of their own past?

The Labour Monthly has a feature which always interests me, called ‘Twenty-five Years Ago’. It is intriguing to see what is chosen from the issue of a quarter-century before to link what the journal was saying then with what is happening now.

In the June number a piece from R.P. Dutt’s Notes of the Month of June 1934 is given, attacking the Labour leadership of that time for ‘drifting towards war’.

The quotation is, of course, cut short before we can appreciate that what Dutt was condemning was support for ‘war in defence of the collective peace system’ – which became Communist Party policy only a little over a year later!

I should have liked to see instead a piece from the article in the same issue on the historic strike at the Lucas factory in Birmingham, part of the break-through then being battled for in that ‘city of mass production at sweated rates’.

‘The Lucas strike shook the capitalist police regime in Birmingham. One of the Lucas girls was arrested on May 1. She is put in the dock first and pleads guilty to the charge of disorderly conduct and police assault.

‘But she was quickly got out of the court back to the factory. The guardians of law and order were in mortal fear that the Lucas workers would come for her.’

But whom would such a quotation please and encourage in 1959? Only ‘Trotskyist trouble-makers and their dupes’!

Last updated on 12.10.2011