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Cheap Patriotism

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Short Fiction i
Subjects Bureaucracy; Civil Service
Great Britain—Politics and Government
Social classes; Class distinctions; Aristocracy (Social Class); Aristocracy (Social Class)—Fiction; Middle Class; Working Class; Servants;
Other Details
Printed : 9/6/1855
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XI
Magazine : No. 272
Office Book Notes
Views : 1585

Writing to Layard on 2 June to apologise for his inability to attend a meeting connected with the Administrative Reform Association, Dickens tells him, 'I am constantly putting the subject in as sharp lights as I can kindle, in Household Words' (Pilgrim, Vol. VII, p. 637), and mentions as an example this 'little paper' which, he says, he has in press.

It was certainly highly topical. The Northcote-Trevelyan report, with its recommendations for reforming the Civil Service, the ending of patronage appointments and the introduction of competitive examinations, had been submitted to Parliament in February 1854; but instead of a parliamentary debate leading to legislation as Northcote and Trevelyan had envisaged, the Government dealt with the matter by an Order in Council (i.e. a decree of the Sovereign and Privy Council) dated 21 May 1855. This choice of procedure may have had something to do with the Queen's 'grave misgivings lest competitive examinations would fill the public offices with "low people without the breeding or feelings of gentlemen"' (E. Hughes, 'Civil Service Reform 1853-1855', Public Administration, Vol. 32 [1954], pp. 1-51). The Northcote-Trevelyan recommendations were considerably watered down in the Order, as Bulwer Lytton pointed out in the great Administrative Reform debate that Layard finally forced Palmerston into holding on 15 June. The Order was, said Lytton, 'a complete evasion of all the real questions at issue'; it left intact the patronage powers of Secretaries of State to make senior appointments in the departments over which they temporarily ruled and 'did not widen the range of candidates' for other appointments (The Times, 16 June 1855, p. 8). Dickens's satire on corruption and inefficiency of the Civil Service in this piece clearly looks forward to the 'Circumlocution Office' chapter in the third number of Little Dorrit, which he was to write in September.

The name 'Tapenham' recalls Dickens's previous onslaughts on 'red tape', which he saw as 'the peculiar curse and nuisance' of the public service in Britain (see Vol. 3 of the Dent edition of Dickens's Journalism, p. 251,  'Red Tape' in HW, 15 February 1851; reprinted in Miscellaneous Papers; also 'Prince Bull: A Fairy Tale' in Reprinted Pieces).

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851-1859, 1998.

DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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