Friday 3 July 2020

Under cover of Brexit

The most important Brexit event of the week came and went with relatively little fanfare, yet it marks a significant moment. The opportunity to extend the transition period went unused (though, just about conceivably, could be revived in new form). That was not a surprise because it had been so strongly signalled by the government that the UK would not seek, or agree to any request for, extension. Still, it is remarkable for being a further indication of the total lack of pragmatism or good sense with which Brexit is being undertaken.

Without reprising all the arguments, with an already short period for negotiation, ratification and implementation massively disrupted by coronavirus only sheer dogmatism mitigated against an extension. As for the negotiations themselves, this week’s round finished earlier than scheduled, with seemingly little or no progress or convergence of positions. There are differing interpretations of the significance of this (to get the range, see here and here) but, frankly, there’s little point in speculating. The crunch point will come in the autumn.

Remarkable, too, that the Labour opposition did not even in passing set down a marker about the folly of non-extension. It makes it more difficult to reach a deal, more likely that any deal that is reached will be limited in scope – with all that means for businesses already reeling from coronavirus - and leave much still to be decided. Yet, having engineered this very situation, the latest complaint of the Brexiters is of an EU ‘plot’ to trap Britain in a never-ending process of negotiation.

Brexit has consequences that people should have known

That is just the latest version of the longstanding disconnect between the decisions of Brexiters and their understanding of the consequences. Of the many examples that could be picked, recall the first Brexit Secretary David Davis’ belief (£) that there was nothing to stop the European Medical Agency or the European Banking Authority from headquartering in the UK (both have now left as a direct result of Brexit), the rage over the UK being excluded from the 2023 European City of Culture competition, or second Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab’s belated realization of the significance of Dover-Calais freight traffic.

This week, an example was Brexiter MP Peter Bone’s bemusement (during a Select Committee meeting) that mutual recognition of standards between the UK and EU will not be possible when we have left the single market. Bone has been campaigning to leave for his entire political life, has all the resources of the House of Commons Library at his disposal and yet still hasn’t acquainted himself with relatively basic facts.

Further, perhaps even more egregious, examples were contained in the ever-ludicrous Mark Francois’ letter to Michel Barnier. Francois, the current ERG Chair and very much the Brexiters’ Brexiter, if only for his “puerile bombast”, cemented those dubious credentials by combining a gracelessness of its language (“A missive from a Free Country”; “it is possible you may have heard of us [the ERG]”), with an obvious ignorance of key facts. These included his apparent lack of awareness of the provisions in the Political Declaration for the Level Playing Field, and the existing commitments within the Withdrawal Agreement for some continuing role for the ECJ in the UK’s “national life”. One might think the ERG should know this. But, then, just as - as everyone except Norman Tebbit realises - the ‘socialist’ in ‘National Socialist’ was a misnomer, as was the ‘democratic in ‘German Democratic Republic’, so too is the “research” in the partly taxpayer-funded European Research Group.

It’s easy to ascribe all this to wilful ignorance – famously, the day after the Referendum saw a spike in people googling to find out what leaving the EU meant – and no doubt that would not be unfair, and very possibly over-generous, in relation to Bone and Francois. But for some, and especially for leave voters rather than their leaders, it is part of something different, namely a belief that, somehow, ‘nothing really changes’ as a result of leaving the EU or, if it does, that this is due to the EU being unreasonable or even punitive.

Brexit isn’t just ‘symbolic’

That’s partly to do with the taking for granted of the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, institutional arrangements. So ‘of course’ nowadays planes fly us to wherever we want without restrictions, as if this were not the outcome of complex agreements such as the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), and ‘of course’ we can travel, work and live freely within Europe, as if that were not the outcome of freedom of movement rights.

In some ways, Brexiters, who despise EU bureaucrats and rail against extra-national decision making, seem to treat it as an act of nature that there are Europe-wide regulatory systems whereas, when transition ends, British citizens will be excluded from their provisions. The related underlying issue is that for many Brexiters the vote to ‘take back control’, with all its emotional resonance, was not thought about in concrete legal or institutional terms but as a kind of symbolic, feel-good act.

It’s this – along with its counterpart in rejecting all warnings of the practical consequences as being ‘Project Fear’ – which I think partly explains why business and governmental preparedness for the end of the transition period has been so limited. Many people simply don’t understand or believe how radically things are about to change, even if a trade deal of some sort is done. Only as they belatedly come to do so do they realise what they have let themselves in for, as with MP Bob Stewart’s recent bathetic plea for the continuation of pet passports so that he can still take his dogs to France.

Brexit is having consequences that no one could have known

All of the above (and there are many other examples) is about things which those advocating or supporting Brexit really should and could have checked, revealed, or understood before. It is going to be a hard education in the coming months and years as what Tom Hayes of the Brussels European Employee Relations Group calls “the Brexit of small things” is experienced. And it won’t even be an education unless people come to understand that these were the consequences of what they voted for rather than treating them as EU ‘punishment’.

By contrast, much that is unfolding now as a consequence of, and often in the name of, Brexit are things which were in no way entailed by it. I’m referring, generally, to the completely unrealistic and reckless way that Brexit is being done. But I’m referring more particularly to the way Brexit is being used to undertake what has the makings of a wholesale restructuring of the British State and Constitution.

This has been incipient since the very early days after the Referendum and I touched on it in my first post on this Blog. More recently, in February, I wrote about it at length under the title ‘Brexit is going feral’. I won’t repeat that here (most of it is still valid), but this week we have seen the latest developments in the shape of the defenestration of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, and the accompanying desire of Boris Johnson that he should be replaced by a Brexit supporter (£). The appointment of David Frost, who is pro-Brexit but has little experience of security matters, to one of Sedwill’s erstwhile roles, that of National Security Advisor, is part of the same process, and led to remarkably blunt criticism from Theresa May. This comes on top of the announcement of the departure of the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office which is widely understood to be related to his lack of Brexit enthusiasm.

The dangers of these developments for civil service impartiality are profound, as governmental expert Jill Rutter pointed out last October. The loss of impartiality is not merely a violation of ‘traditional principle’ but, as Rutter argues, as does Jonathan Powell writing of the current developments, it entails the danger that civil servants simply give bad or even dishonest advice to satisfy the prejudices of their political bosses.

In this way the particular issue of using Brexit as a pretext for Civil Service ‘reform’ (Reformation might be a more apt term) is indeed an aspect of the general problem – undertaking Brexit in a reckless and unrealistic way – and will make it even worse. As I wrote in October 2018 that is the inevitable consequence of faith-based politics.

A “rolling coup”

But the outrageousness of what is happening does not end there. Powell – the longstanding Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, and not lacking in reformist enthusiasm – described it as part of a “rolling coup” in his article. In a tweet, he went further, raising the prospect of authoritarianism and the need to resist it. Someone of his seniority and sobriety does not say such things lightly, and his having done so should be taken very seriously indeed.

This is not like any of the previous, almost endemic, tussles between politicians and civil servants. For one thing, it is very clearly being driven by Dominic Cummings’ desire to see “a hard rain” fall on the civil service (£). It is the bitterest ironies that having vilified the supposed rule of unaccountable EU technocrats that this unelected fan – and, dare one say, exemplification - of “weirdos and misfits” should wield such power. The braggartly, bullying language of “a hard rain” is, in itself, indicative of the reason why such a person should be kept from all power, let alone that as extensive as that which Boris Johnson has gifted him.

It’s true that Cummings’ long-time ally Michael Gove gives some political cover to this, but his much-touted speech on civil service reform was really no more than has been boilerplate stuff since the 1968 Fulton Report. Gove’s pseudo-polite, pseudo-reasonable, pseudo-intellectual smarminess is only a gateway drug to Cummings’ rip-it-up nihilism; the magic dragon Gove merely puffs is the unmagical one that Cummings chases.

If Cummings role isn’t enough reason to ‘just say no’, the constitutional implications of this week’s developments are profound, as Robert Saunders, Reader in British Political History at Queen Mary, University of London, has pointed out, with particular reference to the fact that David Frost will be neither a civil servant nor (despite being made a member of the House of Lords) a member of the government. If such appointments are at the behest of the Prime Minister, neither Parliament nor the Cabinet are the source of Executive authority. It is a move towards a presidentialisation of British politics, but with none of the accompanying checks and balances of, for example, the US system. (It is worth mentioning that as, again, Jill Rutter pointed out some time ago, Frost’s position as Brexit negotiator was already an anomalous one).

A coup rooted in Brexit

It is important to recognize that all of this is inseparable from Brexit (not because it is a necessary consequence of Brexit, but because Brexit is a condition for it). It proceeds from the same populist logic of a culture war against ‘the elite’ and, more specifically, is conceived of by Gove and Cummings as rooting out “ineffective, pro-EU bureaucrats” (£, my emphasis added).

It is that ‘pro-EU’ part which marks this as quite different to all the previous approaches to civil service reform, for it targets specific (supposed) political beliefs rather than competence or even willingness to change in some general way. It is happening under a government with Brexit as its central purpose and its sole loyalty test, and one in which numerous former Vote Leave campaign team members, including Cummings, hold crucial advisory roles. It is making pro-Brexit opinion the defining qualification not even just for those civil servants delivering Brexit but for posts which have little or nothing to do with that.

Crucially, nowhere, ever, in any way whatsoever was it suggested that the 2016 Referendum was a vote for such a ‘coup’. Nowhere, ever, in any way whatsoever was it suggested that the pledge at the last election to ‘Get Brexit Done’ meant using it as a cover to undertake such far-reaching changes.

In this respect, what is happening is potentially far more serious than the dishonest way in which the vote for an undefined Brexit was repurposed as a vote for hard Brexit or even for no deal Brexit. For, now, it is being used as a mandate for wholesale changes to the British political system which are nothing at all to do with delivering Brexit. That was always a danger - it is part of the Brexit McCarthyism I first wrote about in March 2017 (these and other references to my previous posts are not intended to show that ‘I told you so’, but that what is happening now is rooted in what has developed over these last four years). Yet it is developing in complex and subtle ways, which are all the more insidious for being so.

For, as has recently been suggested, there is actually little popular appetite for a ‘Brexit culture war’ but – unlike the screaming ‘enemies of the people’ headline - it is being prosecuted in a way that few voters will really be aware of or interested in. The way the National Security Advisor is appointed is, for most, uninteresting and arcane. Civil service ‘reform’ scarcely less so. But - as with the institutional arrangements which underpin, say, air travel or international trade – once the scaffolding of the political system is dismantled people may be appalled by, but will have to live with, the consequences.

Nothing is inevitable

I keep being told (on Twitter, the fount of all wisdom of course) that all this was “the plan all along” and is inevitable. It may have been the plan of some, but little or nothing is ‘inevitable’ in human affairs. History is made by what, collectively, people do, not despite anything they may do. Without that, there’s no meaning to politics. How Brexit plays out is no exception.

This is what I was trying to get at in last week’s post. Some read it, mistakenly, as a call to ‘get behind Brexit’ or to ‘make Brexit work’. That wasn’t the point at all. Rather, it was to suggest that we should not acquiesce to the inevitability of what the ERG and Brexit Party hardliners insist that Brexit means. With the referendum mandate now discharged, we are freed forever of the yoke of the 17.4 million and with that freedom can and should challenge anew all that is being done in the name of Brexit, as well as comparing it with what was promised. Manifestly, that includes the specifics of whatever may or may not be negotiated with the EU. But it also includes all of the ways Brexit is being made use of to do things which were never entailed by Brexit itself.

The Brexiters have been successful in getting Britain to leave the EU. That is a disaster in itself. But it does not follow that they now own our country to be played with as they will, or to be re-made in whatever way they want.

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