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Is there a UK "deep state"?

A one-time senior British diplomat names his country's 'deep state' as acting to prevent public knowledge of what happened when it invaded Iraq. Is there really a state within the state in the UK?

Yesterday's Observer ran an important scoop, an account by Carne Ross who was our expert on Iraq at the UN from 1997 to 2002, about what happened when he had to give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry. Overall, it seems clear now that after Blair took his early decision to back Bush's storm to war at the start of 2002, all parts of the permanent apparatus in Britain collaborated with rather than defied his recklessness. I have no doubt that a big factor in this is a whole range of personal, corporate and departmental interests committed to blind support of the United States military-security machine whatever it does. As a result, while those like Manningham-Buller who took a different view were sidelined, no alternative strategy was seriously considered or researched. In Carne Ross's words,

the documents tell a...  clear and appalling story: there is not a single mention of any formal discussion, by ministers or officials, of alternatives to military action. It is hard to pinpoint a graver indictment of the government's failure.

But the passage that really stood out for me in what he had to say was this, his opening paragraph:

I testified last week to the Chilcot inquiry. My experience demonstrates an emerging and dangerous problem with the process. This is not so much a problem with Sir John Chilcot and his panel, but rather with the government bureaucracy – Britain's own "deep state" – that is covering up its mistakes and denying access to critical documents.

I have always had the view that British government consists of a non-stop series of minor conspiracies most of which fail but that as a whole the British state accepts civilian leadership.

So I was astonished a while back, in the days of Gordon Brown, to hear a loyal Minister privately refer to "the deep state in the home office", implying a reactionary, shaping force that would seek to get its way when it could. Astonished and shocked. The "deep state" has a specific meaning and origin in Turkey where an Ataturkist (ie secular, nationalist and anti-democratic) element of the Army penetrated the state and conspired to control it, organising coups and in effect running a shadow military dictatorship limiting the freedom of political parties and retaining a stranglehold on Turkish democracy. For example, the deep state was implicated in the assassination of openDemocracy's colleague Hrant Dink. Talk of the "Deep State" in Turkey is not to indulge in a 'conspiracy theory' it is to refer to a well-established, ongoing conspiracy. One of the great struggles currently underway now in the country is between the "Deep State" and the elected government of Recep Erdogan which, thankfully, the government seems to be winning.

So I took the British Minister's remark to be the rhetorical exaggeration from a man under stress and not a description of an ongoing, informal network that despises democracy and seeks to shape how Britain governed from the shadows.

But here is Carne Ross, another experienced insider, but this time in a considered and public fashion, using the same phrase to suggest the existence of some such force in Britain.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness


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