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Whitehall Through the Looking Glass

Author: Henry Tam

Reviewer: Simon Duffy

Henry Tam has done something very difficult and done it very well. He has managed to write an enjoyable page-turner and to provide a clear-headed critique of politics in modern Britain. His book describes how the British Government continues on its current journey to a system where the interests of the powerful, the rich and the corporate have taken complete control of all political life.

I won’t spoil the plot by revealing anything of the story; but at its centre is our civil service - Whitehall. In fact I am not sure that anyone familiar with Whitehall would find the story remotely absurd or fanciful. It largely describes Britain as it already is, not as it will be:

  • The welfare state is being dismantled with different levels of welfare available to people on different incomes.
  • Everything is being privatised, regulations are removed and human rights are deemed unnecessary.
  • People are encouraged to believe that freedom from the state is the key to economic success and that those who suffer must deserve to fail.
  • Lotteries, royal weddings, football and celebrity television all serve to distract people from the real issues that affect their lives.

At the centre of all these changes is the civil servant - an intelligent and caring person - who is asked to provide the all the necessary policies, justifications, explanations, or whatever else is necessary to meet the needs of politicians, who themselves are utterly reliant on corporate interests. And, such is the nature of the civil service, this is exactly what they do. It is the honourable civil service who oversee the erosion of justice and good government.

Meanwhile politics and business focus on one thing - managing public opinion. Giving people what they want or changing people’s views to make sure they want what the powerful want them to want. There is no science fiction here - we are already on the other side of the looking glass.

Reading this book reminded me of other important books that explore possible dystopian futures. In particular I was reminded of 1984 and Brave New World and of correspondence between Huxley and Orwell. In a letter to Orwell, Aldous Huxley makes the following point:

My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World… Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience… The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.

Modern politics may not have managed infant conditioning or narco-hypnosis, but as Tam suggests, it is increasingly focused on understanding how to pander to the needs and prejudices of swing voters in order to sustain its power. Anyone examining modern housing policy and the on-going efforts to maintain the absurd house price bubble must recognise that modern politics has lost its way. We do not live in a democracy, we live in an elitist medianocracy - where the votes of the swing-voter matter most.

In the light of the novel’s realism about politics it is interesting that the civil servant is the hero. Tam explores the pressures which make the civil servant (who continues to be an essential part of the system) fully compliant. Of course this is partly because the civil service retains its inherited sense of obligation to objectively serve the country’s elected representatives. But this conservative stance is reinforced by:

  • Better pay and security than most - the civil service still has the highest median salary of any group
  • The lure of further riches if one leaves to join the corporate sector - game-keeper turned poacher
  • The pleasure of being at the centre of power - the glamour of being near the powerful
  • The enjoyment of the civil service’s own Machiavellian intrigues - being top-dog

It takes a long time for the novel’s hero to wake up to his wider responsibilities to the British public, even when he can see that the civil service’s own privileged status is being undermined all around him.

My hope is that, if there are any book clubs within the civil service, this book will go on their reading lists. I would love to be a fly on the wall as civil servants debated it. I would like to know what line a modern civil servant will not cross. Can they continue to accept our current unacceptable decline in justice, objectivity and common-sense or will some of them start to ask some fundamental questions about what they are not prepared to do?


The publisher is QTP.

Whitehall Through the Looking Glass © Henry Tam 2014.

Review: Whitehall Through the Looking Glass © Simon Duffy 2014.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.