It used to be said of the civil service that it ran like a Rolls-Royce. The pretence is still occasionally maintained. That’s notwithstanding decades of sales of C Northcote Parkinson, lost secret laptops, and illegal immigrants found vacuuming the Home Office.
As for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, counterpart EU diplo-warriors already in John Major’s day indeed likened it to the Rolls – just without the steering wheel. Though to be fair, that was probably payback for a King Charles Street panjandrum comparing the previous Italian EU Presidency to a double-decker operated by the Marx Brothers.
Whole books could be written about which bits of the civil service aren’t fit for purpose. The Michael Gove experience at Education looked to the outsider like Dien Bien Phu. Heaven knows what tofu tribulations now await Penny Mordaunt at International Development. But what should be of more immediate concern to us is the extent of Whitehall’s buy-in to Brexit.
Psychologically, Brexit will have been a shock to departmental seniors. For decades, the acquired wisdom has been that the UK’s future is strategically associated with the EU institutions, and that the best the UK could achieve was to mitigate and slow the process of integration.
What was lacking, in their eyes, was an alternative. EFTA was thought to be delivering free trade too slowly, so, incredibly, Whitehall planners bought into what would turn into the red tape alternative.
EEC membership, despite all its political sores, was seen as unavoidable to an elite that had lost its nerve. Perhaps ironically, it was this fallacy that proved to be the one key element of the old fatalistic mindset that the Thatcher Revolution missed. Her Government broke the sense of there being an inevitable absolute (as opposed to simply relative) national decline for an economy that was damned by poor nationalised management, rampant inflation, Communist trades union cadres, a lack of coherent planning, and above all by deep pessimism that there was any other prospect.
The 1980s did not, however, remove the pessimism relating to the prospect of the UK successfully stepping out of the Brussels machinery. This was in large part because the world moved on: EU integration has massively accelerated with and since Maastricht, just at the time that globalisation has removed many of the very barriers that drove the UK into the EEC in the first place.
But the problem remains for Brexit planners that mindsets within Whitehall were moulded in those blue and yellow years. Indeed, the delegates who went to Maastricht and Nice and Amsterdam invested their very professional lives into the EU, and now face seeing their life’s output ripped up. So it is inevitable that many are still intellectually glued to it.
They need to get the solvent out to do their job efficiently, and pronto.
I am a little more confident than other Brexiteers about the ability of civil servants to put aside the dominant anti-Brexit bias that percolates through their departments. In part that’s because I’ve seen first-hand on many occasions how professional individuals are when given clear and unambiguous direction. I also recall during the Convention on the Future of Europe witnessing the divides between FCO staff and Treasury officials who were more inclined to challenge assumptions and expectations.
Furthermore, during the Vote Leave campaign, I occupied the gold braid position of Director of Special Projects. As one facet of the role, I engaged with whistleblowers from business and from within the civil service, who contacted us to complain about how Downing Street was abusing its position to leverage support and to get clearly biased documents out in spite of civil service rules.
My focus was not to generate headlines with leaked documents, but to pre-emptively encourage the civil service internally to quash these moves. It seems, by and large, that it did. Though also significantly, in some instances, naughtiness did happen. The most obvious element of this, Project Fear, still damns the Treasury’s credibility today – but there were other more covert instances.
My concern with bias within the civil service today is not that I suspect there is a driven agenda to doom Brexit, though some go-slows seem to be happening at some desks. We have seen incidents in sectoral meetings where officials have been briefing business reps to expect EU funding and programmes to continue. Here, Admiral Byng’s example needs to be followed (metaphorically) pour encourager les autres, though one doubts mandarins will be up for it.
In any event, the big risk is that officials might not seize the opportunities that now arise because they lack the guiding ambition.
John Hoskyns’s admirable memoirs prove an extremely useful read. In Just in Time he recalls the many obstacles facing the core intellectual support team behind the Thatcher Revolution, confronted with an occasional No-Can-Do mentality amongst senior ministers and civil servants. In the case of the latter, following years of refusal by politicians to address the root causes of decline, they had opted to mask it, sugaring the bitter pill by massaging figures and declining to apportion blame. Sorting out those problems in the end would require teamwork and determination by both ministers and civil servants, combining resolute leadership and effective groundwork.
The 1980s Revolution happened because the reforming ministers had a key team of thinkers around them, a logistics chain of ideas fed in by think tanks distinct from the civil service. But our problem today is that it is not only Whitehall that bought into the EU.
One shudders to think how many of the consultancies supplying advice to Government have been (and perhaps indeed are) on the EU payroll, manned by former veterans of the Brussels circuit; how many of those offering legal advice have been on Commission courses; how many professors became EU specialists precisely because they are pro-EU – academia’s dirty secret that a simple little letter from Chris Heaton-Harris rudely revealed.
With such Pathan guides, it is legitimate to ask whether the right paths are now being followed. Because revolutions need revolutionaries, and institutions abhor them. To quote Hoskyns, ‘The Civil Service cannot afford outsiders whom they cannot be sure of controlling. “Dissidents” are as uncomfortable to the Civil Service as Solidarity is to the Polish government.’
Brexit is a dissident philosophy. If we are to see it delivered and the full benefits won, ministers need to find their brightest departmental dissidents and get them promoted – and fast.