Sunday 4 March 2018

The perverse politics of Brexit

Most of us will have had the experience of living under a government pursuing a policy with which we profoundly disagreed. It might have been the privatizations of the 1980s, or the Iraq War, or the ban on hunting. It might, indeed, have been joining what became the EU and then progressively closening and deepening that membership through the signing of treaties up to and including Lisbon.

The situation with the government’s Brexit policy, though, is fundamentally different. All of the policies listed above, and all others that I can think of, were deliverable in principle and the people who championed them knew how to deliver them in practice. The profound political dislocation of Brexit is that neither of these things are true in this case.

The problem in principle has been widely described, not least on this blog. The government’s Brexit policy cannot be delivered because it contains incompatible demands, fundamentally because it seeks to keep something close to the economic arrangements of EU membership, and especially single market membership, without accepting the political and institutional arrangements that go with that. This incompatibility is most starkly obvious in relation to the Irish border, which the government wants to have completely open whilst also not belonging to the single market or having a comprehensive customs agreement. But the same basic impossibility runs through every part of the policy for the same reason.

That is not to say that any form of Brexit policy would be impossible in principle to deliver. It would be possible to deliver a soft Brexit of single market membership via EFTA/EEA along with a comprehensive customs agreement. Or it would be possible to deliver a ‘clean Brexit’ of complete detachment from the EU, the single market and the customs union. Both of these policies would be politically controversial for various reasons and both would be economically damaging, in the latter case catastrophically so. But they would not contain the inherent contradictions of the actual Brexit policy and in that sense would, for better or for worse, be deliverable.

Of course any form of Brexit would, whatever one’s view of its desirability, be a complex matter. That is just because of the scale of the operation and the timescales involved and, as such, it requires very considerable expertise across a wide range of domains – trade, security, international relations, and law being just a few of them. One of the biggest ironies of the present situation is that, by and large, the advocates of hard Brexit simply do not possess that expertise and in this sense are reliant upon those who do. But those who do are, again by and large, opposed to Brexit in general and, even if they were not, cannot by definition be expected to enact a form of Brexit which is impossible in principle.

This appears to be the unprecedented bind that the Civil Service finds itself in. It is generally thought (and the class and education profile of the Referendum vote makes it statistically probable) that civil servants are, again generally, not in favour of Brexit. Indeed, Brexiters frequently bemoan this. But delivering policies with which they disagree is meat and drink to career civil servants and hardwired into the ethos of the British Civil Service. It’s an ethos which is nicely captured in the classic political sitcom Yes Minister, when Sir Humphrey explains:

“I have served eleven governments in the past thirty years. If I had believed in all their policies, I would have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to going into it. I would have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel. And of denationalising it and renationalising it. On capital punishment, I'd have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist. I would've been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac; but above all, I would have been a stark, staring, raving schizophrenic.”
What makes the government’s Brexit policy different is the impossibility of delivering it. It is difficult to know what is going on behind the scenes because serving civil servants do not give public briefings, but we have seen many indications of what I am claiming. Most obviously, the high profile resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, formerly Britain’s Ambassador to the EU, who was effectively hounded from office by the Brexit Ultras, showed how the government refuses to listen to expert advice which challenges an impossible policy. The statements of many other former senior civil servants paints the same picture, and it is difficult to believe that they are not saying in public what their current-day successors think and say in private.

The most recent example is the comment by Sir Martin Donnelly, until last year Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Trade, criticising the government’s ‘Fairy Godmother’ approach to Brexit, a term that underscores, indeed, its fantastical nature. This prompted a scathing response from Brexiters including his former political boss at DfIT, Liam Fox. It is difficult to imagine that when, just months back, they were working together they did not hold similar positions to those they hold now. More generally, it is reasonable to suspect that the senior civil service is endlessly trying to explain to Ministers what is and is not possible and being ignored if it does not fit the hard Brexit playbook. Indeed, the trashing of the leaked forecasts of the consequences of Brexit seems to confirm this.

The politics of Brexit are unprecedented for another reason. Just as civil servants often have to enact policies they disagree with so too, very likely, do Ministers and even perhaps, on occasion, Prime Ministers. But Brexit is unique in that it is not just a single policy but a complete reset of Britain’s fundamental economic and geo-political strategy and yet the Prime Minister herself appears to think that it is essentially mistaken. I remarked in my previous post that the sub-text of her speech on Friday, as with the Florence speech, was that Britain would be better off staying in the EU. A very acute editorial in today’s Observer makes the same argument at length, pointing out that the speech constantly implied the benefits of what was being rejected. It is an interpretation bolstered by her evasive response when asked after the speech whether Brexit was worth it, and by the fact that she has twice refused to say whether she would vote for Brexit if the Referendum was being held now.

This is really quite an extraordinary situation. Of course, it is well known that May was, if only reluctantly and not very vocally, a remainer during the campaign. It’s easy to understand why she would have felt it necessary to endorse Brexit in order to secure the leadership of her party, and it’s not wholly ignoble for a leader to seek to keep her party from splitting (though that’s not to say that placing that above the national interest is justified). Nor is it ignoble to believe, as she apparently does, that not to have enacted Brexit would have created a potential crisis of democratic legitimacy and trust. But none of that justifies, or requires, the pursuit of Brexit in an impossible form. There was an answer that would have satisfied those concerns and also have been deliverable (i.e. soft Brexit, in the meaning described above). We may even, conceivably, end up with something not a million miles away from that, but only via a route which will leave the Ultras (whose hopes she has raised) and remainers (whose views she has treated with contempt) equally unhappy.

Whatever her motivations, what has been revealed is a profound lack of leadership. She appears to have mistaken stubbornness for strength, determined that come what may, and regardless even of her own true beliefs, she must continue down the path she has embarked upon. Ironically, I have heard it said (but cannot find the source) that when she was at the Home Office she was described as having the qualities of a good civil servant in terms of delivering her brief. She seems to have taken the Referendum to have set out the brief and her job as PM to be to deliver it. But the Referendum did not set out how the result should be delivered and, anyway, a good civil servant knows that there are ways and means of delivering. Or, as Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey once put it (and I suspect that his current real life counterparts are now often, in effect, saying):

“If you are going to do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way.”

So the politics of Brexit are truly remarkable not just because Brexit polarises opinion more deeply than perhaps any issue in modern British history but because it does so in a particular way. Brexit policy has taken a form that demands the impossible and requires those who know it is impossible to implement it. It is overseen by someone who presumably thinks that it is possible in this form, but doesn’t appear to believe that it is desirable. Meanwhile it is proclaimed as the sacred Will of the People who magically knew what they voted for two years ago, even though it was only last week that the government precariously agreed what that was. And what we end up with will certainly be different to what the government wants, because that’s impossible to deliver, but whatever it turns out to be it would be an affront to democracy to ask the people to vote on whether or not they agree to it.

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