British MPs are democratically elected by plurality to represent their constituents in the legislature. MPs vote on laws initiated by the Government. MPs can initiate legislation via the Cabinet or via Private Members’ Bills.

But as the sitcom “Yes Minister” pointed out, the reality might be different, with a powerful, stable, anonymous and unaccountable Civil Service acting as power- and information-broker, with the ability to subvert if not totally control decisions of the elected representatives.

For example, Brexit negotiations re-started this week. Presumably during the break Civil Servants have been preparing/choreographing the next round of discussions.

And according to one media source:

“Ministers are in the dark as to what has changed since talks broke down.”

What safeguards are there in the UK political system against the Civil Service potentially abusing their power, and to what extent might the “Yes Minister” caricature be accurate?

  • 1
    Is there anything you're looking for that isn't covered in the relevant Wikipedia section regarding codes that civil servants must abide by?
    – Giter
    Oct 30, 2018 at 17:13
  • 1
    Thank you. Are there safeguards other than this code of practice?
    – 52d6c6af
    Oct 30, 2018 at 17:29
  • 3
    Why do you call it "Deep State abusing their power"? Perhaps it's intentionally this way
    – Caleth
    Dec 13, 2018 at 9:49
  • 3
    MPs are elected by a plurality of votes of their constituents, not a majority.
    – owjburnham
    Jun 23, 2019 at 22:42
  • 1
    N.B. When it was said that "“Ministers are in the dark" that doesn't, I think, mean that the Civil Service are keeping /all/ Ministers in the dark. It could quite well be the case that the Civil Service in relevant departments have been instructed by their Ministers not to share information with other departments and other Ministers? Some PMs are less open than others when it comes to sharing power/information with the rest of the Cabinet.
    – owjburnham
    Jun 24, 2019 at 10:57

1 Answer 1


I believe this question is fundamentally the wrong way up; as a result of how it's constructed, the UK is a thin democratic layer on top of various parts of what I would call the "permanent state": the Crown, various public sector bodies, local government, the police, etc.

Within that the government (effectively, the PM plus cabinet) has substantial power under the Royal Prerogative, constrained by statute law and judicial review. Those constraints also apply to the civil service: generally statute law specifies how administrative regulation is supposed to work, with authority over the details granted to the relevant Secretary of State.

The "Yes Minister" argument is that civil servants have substantial control through the "boxes" and the information they can present to ministers. This is true, but it has eroded a lot in recent years - not only through the internet, but also through the "SPADs", who are political advisors that report to the Party not the civil service.

Ultimately civil servants who unambiguously refuse to obey clear written instructions from the Minister may be found in breach of the Code, and sacked as ordinary insubordinate employees - but at higher level they may be hard to replace, and as you remember Humphrey never disobeyed a direct order. Parliament is also free to pass laws obliging certain duties to be performed in certain ways, in which failing to do so may be a criminal offence, although I think this is very restricted (Official Secrets Act comes to mind as an example).

Possibly the most egregious example of different parts of the government working against each other illegally was the Matrix-Churchill affair. There are probably other examples from Northern Ireland where the security services were allowed to run a police state for decades; I remember hearing that government negotiations with Sinn Fein for the ceasefire had to be kept secret from Special Branch. There are also persistent rumors that MI5 were plotting a coup against Harold Wilson, and Special Branch following Peter Hain around.

  • The question also asks for safeguards. Are there any safeguards and what are they? Jun 25, 2019 at 19:25

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .