Civil Service Systems in Comparative Perspective series
Edited by John Halligan
Chapter 3: The civil service in Britain: a case study in path dependency
David Richards INTRODUCTION It is rare to discover a text on comparative political systems that does not at some point single out the British polity for being one of the oldest and most stable systems in the world. The absence of violent revolution or successful invasion by other countries for the best part of a thousand years has ensured an almost unrivalled continuity in the development of the British state. And the ability to evolve from an absolutist state to a liberal-democratic parliamentary system has provided an institutional model that a number of other aspiring nation states have often opted to either fully or partially imitate (see Judge 1993). A central component in the long-term evolution of the British state is the civil service, whose origins can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages. From an institutionalist perspective, the civil service – and more broadly the British state – can be identified as possessing a path dependency whose equilibrium has only rarely been punctuated. The contention here is that the British political elite have tended to regard both the constitution and the civil service as institutions to be proud of, and thus any form of change should only ever be limited and partial (see Thelen et al. 1992; Rose and Karran 1994). The central argument of this chapter is that while there have been a number of periods in the last 200 years in which the British civil service has undergone a process of reform (most notably the 1850s, the...
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