A greater concern was that meritocracy would produce an overweening centralized state. The Prussian precedent left Walter Bagehot wary of “establishing, virtually for the first time in England, an organized Bureaucracy.” On the floor of the House of Commons, MPs brandished warnings from Tocqueville and Montalembert against following imperial France’s example, which would inevitably lead to administrative tyranny, the creation of a political clerisy, and “a venal and servile humor” to supplant the English spirit of liberty. Gladstone replied that such worries were “idle, pusillanimous, and womanish,” since Parliament could be trusted to keep the civil service in its place. “In certain continental states the experiment may be perilous, but in England you may make the Civil Service as strong as you please.”
Hearing this, Robert Cecil (later Lord Salisbury) rose to say that “he did not regard that fear as so groundless and unfounded as the right honorable Gentleman appeared to do.” Salisbury’s comprehensive case against Northcote-Trevelyan was dismissed by Gladstone biographer John Morley as “the lazy doctrine that men are much of a muchness,” and no doubt this was Salisbury’s starting point. Beyond ensuring that candidates could spell and add, he thought that selecting the most intelligent men you could find was unnecessary — even positively harmful. Such men would be arrogant and argumentative, and would “look upon their duties as beneath their abilities.” This was not mere speculation, but the attested experience of their supervisors in departments where examination had been implemented. One bitter customs officer cited by Salisbury complained of “a self-sufficiency and presumption, from an imagined superiority in having undergone such examination, and a desire for literature in business, which I have been obliged to check.” This arrogance was bad enough around the office, Salisbury believed, but to the extent that it encompassed the public, it was a threat to their liberties.
More generally, Salisbury predicted that competitive examination would dangerously transform the spirit of government. As he saw it, reformers were seeking to automate the art of politics in a way “manifestly repugnant to the commonest and not the worst feelings of our nature.” Rattling off instances of patronage exercised nobly by Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Johnson, and Robert Peel, Salisbury asked whether it was worth abjuring such acts merely to keep out a handful of slow-witted copyists: “Why should favour and friendship, kindness and gratitude, which are not banished by men from private life, be absolutely excluded from public affairs?” And in the effort to eliminate all unmathematical considerations from the exercise of power, what other human qualities might not be driven out? Mercy? Flexibility? Loyalty to country? It was a dangerous and metastatic idea, this notion that statesmen could govern by formula.
(Helen Andrews, “The New Ruling Class,” The Hedgehog Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 2016).