Wednesday 17 October 2018

Brexiter attacks on the civil service point to the wider dangers of faith-based politics

As Brexit develops it become ever clearer that whatever happens is going to be nothing whatsoever like what was promised by leading leavers. But, of course, rather than draw the obvious conclusion – that those promises were impossible fantasies – they blame everyone and everything other than themselves. The worse Brexit becomes, the more certain they are of their rightness and that they are the victims of betrayal.

Of the many groups in line for the blame – the EU, remainers up to and including ‘Theresa the remainer’, the judiciary, academics, the BBC – civil servants are currently under the greatest attack. As I pointed out in the very first post on this blog, suspicion and criticism of the civil service started almost immediately after the referendum, with it being positioned as the epitome of the ‘pro-remain establishment’ bent on thwarting ‘the will of the people’.

Olly Robbins has recently emerged as the Brexiters’ chief bogeyman, with juvenile booing of his name at the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ meeting at the Tory Conference. He is attacked particularly for having supposedly out-manoeuvred David Davis – not, perhaps, something that would require particularly Machiavellian cunning – to produce the Chequers Proposal. Things have reached such a pitch that the acting Head of the Civil Service took the unusual step this week of writing to a national newspaper to defend Robbins from his critics. Meanwhile, the head of HMRC has received death threats for giving evidence to a Select Committee – that is, for doing his job - on the costs of Brexit.

It is not simply individuals who are in the firing line for what Daniel Hannan has recently called “monstrous ineptness”, with the generic ‘Sir Humphrey’ accused of being “blinded by his closeness to his European counterparts”. And these are benign comments compared with the self-serving sabotage that civil servants are routinely accused of on social media. In making such accusations, the key board warriors are doing no more than parroting what has become a standard attack line from Brexit Ultras. This despite the fact that a major research study this year found no evidence whatsoever of civil service attempts to frustrate Brexit.

Although it’s impossible to be certain what’s going on inside government, the remarks of recently retired or resigned civil servants make it pretty clear. Civil servants doing their job of providing advice based upon evidence and practical realities are constantly having to say things which Brexiter politicians don’t like and don’t want to believe. As Sir Gus O’Donnell pugnaciously pointed out earlier this year, civil servants “look at the evidence and we go where it is … of course if you are selling snake oil, you don’t like the idea of experts testing your products”.  That is quite evident in, for (particular) example, the numerous public statements of Sir Ivan Rogers since his resignation, for doing just that.

And it has an inevitability about it: whilst some of the claims that Brexiters make are in areas where there are legitimately debatable points of view (the abstract value of sovereignty, for example), many are based on simple errors of fact about which there can be no legitimate debate (the basic terms on which international trade operates, for example). The consequence is that civil servants have been asked to deliver impossible policies, and when they are, by definition, unable to do so they are accused of at best incompetence and at worse disloyalty.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Philip Hammond was accurate in describing the way Boris Johnson approached Brexit discussions: “Boris sits there and at the end of it he says ‘yeah but, er, there must be away, I mean if you just, if you, erm, come on Phil, we can do it. I know we can get there’. And that’s it”. But that is not just about Johnson, even though he may be an especially egregious example. It is what has characterised the approach of pretty much all the high profile Brexiters: no concrete and realistic proposals are made, but a vague ‘can do’ attitude is invoked as if that can substitute for such proposals. It is this which has dogged Brexit all along: no viable plan is put forward and any attempt to do so immediately divides Brexiters amongst themselves.

All of this points to something deeper and much more dangerous. What is going on, as an aspect of a wider culture war, is a collision between technocratic politics based upon rational argument and evidence, and faith-based politics based upon feeling and sentiment (this is, at least in part, the thesis of William Davies’ recent book Nervous States).

No doubt both have always been in some degree present – and it would be a soulless politics indeed that was purely technocratic. But it becomes extremely problematic when feeling and sentiment completely swamp rationality and evidence. That is not just because it creates unworkable policy but because it becomes self-re-enforcing: the more the policy fails, the greater the belief that with more faith it would work. It’s not just that it isn’t evidence-based or even that it is evidence-immune, it is that it thrives on evidence that contradicts it.

What is problematic becomes a serious danger when it gets combined, as has happened with Brexit, with cult-like demands for loyalty, and a tribalism that insists that those who do not share the faith are not just unbelievers but enemies, traitors and saboteurs. It is that world that the more Jacobin Brexiters are liable to create, one in which every institution, every policy and – in the end – every person is assessed for fidelity to the pure, true flame of Brexit faith. There is much written of the economic damage of Brexit, but if this is the politics we end up with then that will be a damage far greater and even less retrievable.

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