Tuesday 3 January 2017

Ivan Rogers' resignation: a sign of dangers ahead

The resignation today of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK Ambassador to the EU, would appear to be one of the consequences of what is emerging as a pattern. Rogers was vilified by the press and some Brexit politicians for reporting – as was his job – the likely attitudes of other EU countries to the Brexit negotiations, warning that these were likely to take many years to complete. The treatment of Mark Carney is part of the same pattern, although he has robustly stood his ground.

Rumours abound of civil servants and others, such as business leaders, being frozen out of government discussions if they raise any questions or concerns about Brexit. As I predicted in the very first post on this blog, the civil service is increasingly blamed as the completely unrealistic and unworkable ideas of the Brexiters encounter the hard rock of reality. Brexiters – or at least the hard core ones – will never admit that they are at error and will instead seek to blame others. It seems very likely that we will see a string of resignations and early retirements from the civil service just at the moment they are most needed.

This is a situation that was eminently predicable because of two factors. First, that the central policy of the government is driven by a fiercely ideological, evidence-free, populism combining a sense of both of victimhood, even in victory, and suspicion of ‘betrayal’. Secondly, that the referendum created the unusual situation where the bulk of those who had to deliver it in practical terms almost certainly do not support it. In those circumstances, an enforced or voluntary purge of functionaries becomes almost inevitable.

The dangers of this are really immense, at a number of levels. At the extreme, it paves the way for something not too far from totalitarianism. If civil servants (and judges) are denounced as ‘enemies of the people’, how much longer before any dissent from Brexit orthodoxy becomes forbidden? Alarmist, perhaps, but we are moving very quickly into unknown territory. Brexiters have already called for ‘investigations’ into the supposedly negative coverage of Brexit by the BBC. And as I have pointed out in another post there is a growing narrative that everyone has a ‘patriotic duty’ to get behind Brexit.

At the least, it will result in the wholesale politicization of the civil service, with only true believers in Brexit being able to function irrespective of their expertise. Brexiters, including the ubiquitous Jacob Rees-Mogg, are already calling for Rogers’ replacement to have pro-Brexit views. More specifically, it will create a group think mentality in which no realistic or sensible policymaking is possible, driving the UK headlong into the most disastrous form of Brexit imaginable.

This matters to all of us, but perhaps Brexiters should be especially worried. Having won the Referendum, the onus is now on them to deliver the good outcome that they promised. If they fail to do so, the disappointment of their supporters and the anger of those who do not support them will be huge and the consequences unpredictable and potentially dramatic. I think that Brexit is doomed to a degree of failure anyway, but it will certainly be more likely to fail, and more likely to fail very badly, if policy is developed and implemented by people who know and care nothing about the realities of what is involved.

In my previous post I discussed whether Theresa May’s calls for unity were meaningful. Here is one test of it: is she going to continue to preside over a ‘cultural revolution’ where anyone raising practical, legitimate questions about Brexit is to be hounded from public office?

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