British Government – Beyond ‘YesMinister’.

What it is and how it works (or doesn’t).

Colin Talbot

[This is the draft program for a course introducing British Government for anyone interested in learning more about how the UK is run. It should start running this Autumn/Fall (2022). I’ll publicise details via Twitter and other SM. @colinrtalbot ]

British Government is big. And over the past couple of years it got considerably bigger, on several dimensions. But ordinary citizens often have only a vague idea of what government actually is, and what it can and cannot do, or how it works.

This course aims to provide an overview of contemporary British government – or rather governments, because as we will explore there is more than one government. Some of this may be familiar, but hopefully after this course you will see government in a different light. You will have a more comprehensive understanding and know where to look to find out more.

Colin Talbot has three decades of experience working on and with governments, not just in Britain but in almost two-dozen other countries. Before becoming an academic Colin worked in public and private sectors over two decades, having left school at 16. He is retired from the University of Manchester where he is still Professor of Government (Emeritus).


Encountering Government – A Citizen’s Eye View

Our first session will be an opportunity to reflect on how we all encounter government, in numerous ways, every day. From the moment we get up in the morning to retiring at night we live in a web of government influences, most of which we barely notice. Whether you think this is a good or bad thing, it is a reality and one it is important to understand. This session will also introduce the idea of “the tools of government” which helps makes sense of these engagements.

What State Are We In?

What country are you a citizen of? Even after all the controversy over Brexit, many people still don’t have clear view of what country this is – or rather they often have a confused view. It’s hardly surprising when we compete at the Olympics as “Team GB” when we should be “Team UK”. Or in football international competitions as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. While in some rugby we are the “British and Irish Lions” but in other we are separate nations. So what country is this? And how did we end up here?

Governments Beyond Westminster & Whitehall

Depending on how you count, the United Kingdom has over 10,000 ‘governments’ (central, devolved and local). And that is just the elected ones. Many other organisations effectively govern aspects of our lives. This session will examine what all these local bodies – including unelected local services do and how they relate to elected government.

The Civil Service(s)

The popular image of the civil service is indelibly tied to Sir Humphrey Appleby, one of the two central characters in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. And whilst there is some truth in this caricature it is far from the whole story. This session will examine the real civil service – or rather services – and their role in central and devolved governments.


One of the cornerstones of our (unwritten) constitution is the sovereignty of Parliament. But just how sovereign is parliament? From its relationship with central government (the executive) thru relations with devolved and local government, and outwards to relations with international bodies, parliamentary sovereignty has many limitations. We’ll examine this thorny issue, plus discuss the way parliament works in practice.

Getting & Spending

One of the most discussed, but perhaps least properly understood, functions of government is how it gets its money and what it does with when it has it. This session will concentrate on just how big government is, in fiscal terms, in the 2020s. How much the recent crises (2008 financial and 2020 Covid) have expanded the state. It will also try and bust some myths about public money – especially the confusing way in which politicians (or all stripes) deliberately spin fiscal information.

Public Services & The Welfare State

This session will go into some more detail about the main things that government spends money on – especially health, education and ‘social protection’ (which includes social care and benefits, including pensions). It will include some comparisons with other OECD countries to see just how different, or not, patterns of spending and provision are in the UK. 

Transnational Governments

The Brexit controversy generated far more heat than light about the way countries relate to one another in the 21st century. Global issues like climate change can only be tackled internationally, as can things like regulating fairly global trade relations. Meanwhile the Ukrainian war has illustrated just how fragile some aspects of international relations are. This session will look at the issues and the institutions which UK government has to engage with externally.

Goldilocks Government?

This session will be something of a ‘round up’ of what has gone before, focussing on what Dr Carole Talbot and I (yes, she’s my wife) have called “Goldilocks Government”. Looking at the pattern of the growth of what are now the “western” liberal democracies over the past 100+ years there is a remarkably clear pattern of evolving towards ‘Goldilocks Government’ – not too big (thou bigger than it was) but also not too small.

Once and Future Government?

The agenda for this final session will be set by participants. It will be an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on what we’ve learnt and where “government” might go in the future. And address anything you think we’ve missed.

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The senior civil service in Britain: what it is, who is in it, and how it has changed

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(UN)REPRESENTATIVE BUREAUCRACY? Are public service leaders unlike the country they serve?

By Colin Talbot

Is the staffing of our government institutions – the civil service and public services – somehow “unrepresentative” of the people they serve?

That they are is a central theme of current UK government thinking. But what precisely do they mean? And is there any evidence they are right?

Continue reading “(UN)REPRESENTATIVE BUREAUCRACY? Are public service leaders unlike the country they serve?”

SPENDING REVIEWS: what are they good for?

By Colin Talbot

What is a “Spending Review”? Simply it is a statement, by HM Government, of what it intends to spend over the next (usually) 3 years. And what it will spend it on.

Sounds deceptively simple? “Deceptive” is the operative word, because it turns out to be anything but simple or straightforward.

Continue reading “SPENDING REVIEWS: what are they good for?”

Michael Gove and Civil Service Reform – Talk, Decisions, Actions …. and Consequences

This is a cautionary note for all those people taking Michael Gove’s speech about “The Privilege of Public Service” seriously.

One of my favourite books on organizations is by the Nils Brunsson, the Swedish organization theorist. My late friend and colleague Christopher Pollitt and I used to spend many pleasant sessions, drink in hand, discussing how it applied to public policy. Continue reading “Michael Gove and Civil Service Reform – Talk, Decisions, Actions …. and Consequences”

The Covid-19 Shield Wall has been ripped away by the Government

I’ve been shielding since before we started calling it that.

By the start of March it was obvious to me that people with conditions like mine are highly vulnerable to C-19.

So from 4 Mar I started taking measures to isolate myself, as much as possible.

Suddenly, this weekend (May 30/31), we have been told we are free to go out like everyone else, just maintain social distancing. No warning, no explanation of why, or how.

Continue reading “The Covid-19 Shield Wall has been ripped away by the Government”