Friday 28 April 2023

Raab, Brexit and the Civil Service

One day there will undoubtedly be a book written about the impact of Brexit on the civil service, and it will be one of the most important parts of the story of the harm Brexit has done to Britain. Some elements of the story it will tell have already been outlined on the blog. In the very first post, in September 2016, I wrote that “there are already noises from Brexiters that civil servants are obstructing British exit. We will hear much more of that in the coming years as the complete lack of realism of Brexit becomes impossible to avoid. Over a whole swathe of issues … the Brexit position is composed of, at best, half-truths or just outright fantasies. It is therefore inevitable that the coming months and years will see a series of collisions between these fantasies and the realities (and equally inevitable that Brexiters will blame this on others)”.

Not every prediction I’ve made about Brexit proved true but that one most certainly has, and since 2016 I’ve returned to it in detail several times. Particular moments have included the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers in January 2017, the concerted attacks on Olly Robbins and the civil service in general, especially in the wake of the Chequers Agreement in 2018, the 2019 resignation of Sir Kim Darroch and what it betokened, the 2020 ‘hitlist’ of senior civil servants deemed to be anti-Brexit, the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam and the associated allegations of bullying by Priti Patel, and the resignation of Sir Mark Sedwill.

The consequences of faith-based politics

These are just a few of the key episodes in a very complex story. Of course, tensions between civil servants and government ministers didn’t begin with Brexit, but I think it is fair to say that there has never been such sustained hostility from politicians, and their media supporters, towards both individual civil servants and the institution of the civil service as Brexit has engendered.

Moreover, as with Brexit itself, that hostility has become entwined with a more general culture war attack on ‘the liberal elite’ and ‘wokeness’. For example, supporting the attacks made by Boris Johnson and Dominic ‘hard rain’ Cummings on civil servants, the ferociously pro-Brexiter Sunday Telegraph Allister Heath insisted (£) that “Brexit is not enough” and that “our arrogant overrated civil service must now face a political reckoning”.

The former senior civil servant Jonathan Powell has described these attacks as part of a “rolling coup against institutions”. And, indeed, under Liz Truss it became even clearer that Brexiters and the wider populist Right consider not just civil servants, the judiciary, universities, the Bank of England, the OBR, and the BBC to be part of an ‘anti-Brexit Establishment’ but also the IMF, OECD and even currency and bond market traders. Welcome to what David Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg are pleased to call “National Conservatism” (£), or what I have called ‘Brexitist Conservatism’.

Without repeating all of the analysis in the previous posts I’ve linked to above, the core reason why Brexit has provoked a particular issue for the civil service is that it is a politics based upon faith rather than rationality or evidence. This inevitably brings Brexiter politicians into conflict with the civil service in a way that very rarely happens over ‘normal’ policy and has never happened over what amounts to a complete change in national strategic direction. As Jill Rutter, a leading expert on the civil service, has put it: “for many Brexit supporters, Brexit is an article of faith that people believe in ‘in their heart’. Ideas like sovereignty and autonomy are not amenable to the usual civil service approach of solving problems by looking at the costs and benefits”.

Thus Brexit wasn’t simply a ‘policy’: it betokened a completely different principle of political and governmental conduct. At the most extreme, it led to Brexiters demanding of civil servants things, such as ‘frictionless trade’ outside of the single market and customs union, which were simply undeliverable, or things, such as the clauses in the Internal Market Bill that led to the resignation of the head of the Government Legal Department, which were illegal. In a faith-based politics, that inevitably gave rise to the accusations of ‘obstructionism’ and ‘sabotage’ that were levelled at the civil service throughout the Brexit negotiations, as if a different civil service of ‘true believers’ could have changed the facts and would not have been bound by the law.

Raab’s resignation

Against this background, what of Dominic Raab’s resignation last Friday and its aftermath? Ostensibly, it has nothing to do with Brexit. Raab faced eight accusations of bullying civil servants, two of which were upheld by an independent report prepared by Adam Tolley KC, and as such demonstrated that Raab had violated the Ministerial Code. This report also showed that, even where bullying was not proven, Raab’s conduct was “abrasive” and “intimidating”. As former Justice Secretary David Gauke put it, it “may well have been that it was only evident that Raab crossed the line on a couple of occasions but it is also clear that he was at or near the line as a matter of course”.  It could be argued that, even leaving aside any breaches of the Ministerial Code, this showed him to lack the effective leadership skills needed by a senior minister. At all events, as a result of the report, Raab resigned.

To read Raab’s account of these events (£), and those of his many supporters, it might be thought that he had been entirely exonerated and his resignation was an act of principled nobility; that he was a victim if not indeed a martyr in the whole affair. That piece of moral gymnastics was achieved through three moves. Firstly, he implied that because most of the complaints of bullying weren’t upheld, he was somehow more innocent than guilty. Secondly, he suggested that those which had been upheld had applied a ludicrously “low bar” in defining bullying. Thirdly, he suggested that he only resigned because he had promised to do so if any of the accusations of bullying were upheld, thus, far from being disgraced, this was an honourable and actually needless act of self-punishment. The implication - which, given the fact that Priti Patel was not punished by Boris Johnson for her bullying of civil servants, might actually be true - was that, but for Raab’s promise, Rishi Sunak might have decided that he need not resign.

All of this could be read as the slippery self-justification of a discredited Minister or, as with the Patel case, an example of the ludicrous inadequacy of how the Ministerial Code operates. Instead, it became twisted round, as if it was not Raab who had been investigated for misconduct but civil servants. On this account, as with Patel, the suggestion was that all Raab had done was to demand good performance of civil servants, whose complaints arose from a combination of covering up their own incompetence and a ‘snowflake’ inability to accept criticism. Hence Oliver Dowden, now installed as Deputy Prime Minister, rushed to insist not, as one might expect after such a Ministerial resignation, that higher standards would be expected of Ministers in future, but that “there would be no letting up in the high standards I expect of civil servants”. At the same time, further weight was added to the pre-existing suggesting of making civil service roles the subject of political appointment.

Yet even this wouldn’t have amounted to a direct connection with Brexit, had Raab himself not made it in blaming his downfall on “anti-Brexit activist civil servants”. This accusation, eagerly repeated across the Brexit bubble, obviously related to Brexit itself, with Raab having at different times been Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary, but also to post-Brexit policies on the judiciary and migration. So here, once again, was the same accusation that has been made ever since 2016, although the Tolley report had made neither explicit nor implicit mention that opposition to Brexit had in any way motivated the complaints about Raab.

In this sense, Raab’s resignation is, indeed, the latest episode of the story of Brexit and the civil service. It is all too easy to envisage the collision of Raab’s own fanatical belief in Brexit and his dealings with civil servants who had to cope with the realities of implementing it. After all, it was Raab who, at a Select Committee in 2016, was totally bemused by the fact that hard Brexit would increase, rather than decrease, border red tape; it was Raab who, as Brexit Secretary in 2018, announced that he “hadn’t quite understood” the UK’s reliance on the Dover-Calais crossing for its goods trade; and it was Raab who admitted in January 2019 that he hadn’t read the Good Friday Agreement.

Thus Raab, who apparently prides himself on his meticulous attention to detail, seems to have lacked an understanding of some of the most basic facts about Brexit, a policy for which he campaigned for years and had a key role in implementing. So, given the general picture of his conduct given by the Tolley Report, it isn’t hard to imagine how he would have reacted to civil servants having to tell him, for example, what hard Brexit would mean for border controls or cross-channel goods flows. The ‘abrasiveness’ of that reaction might be attributable to his personality, but the likely ascription of the civil servants’ advice to their “anti-Brexit” bias would be a consequence of the systematic refusal of Brexiters to accept reality, as well as their almost wilful ignorance about what Brexit entails.

A scapegoat for the failures of Brexit

However, whilst Raab’s case is in part an illustration of what Brexit has meant for the civil service, the current debate around it reflects two slightly different, though related things. One is just the general extension from Brexit into culture war, the targets of which all have ‘remainer’ as the foundational ascribed characteristic, to which can be added indiscriminately any or all of ‘liberal’, ‘elite’, ‘establishment’, ‘woke’, ‘declinist’, and ‘unpatriotic’ to make up the dismal bingo card of the populist imagination. But the other is about Brexit itself, and the now unavoidable evidence of it having failed to deliver any of the promises Brexiters made for it and of its massive damage to almost every part of economy and society.

It's true that there is still a small industry of Brexiter politicians and commentators who deny every single example of such damage, using every trick of sophistry to do so. But it is hardly convincing, perhaps even to themselves given that so many of them, often the very same people issuing the denials of damage, are equally adamant that ‘the Brexit I voted for’ hasn’t been delivered. Moreover, they can’t avoid the clear polling evidence that most of the public believe that Brexit was a mistake and (which isn’t necessarily the same thing) that the government is handling it badly. So an alternative strategy is to blame this on, well, everyone but themselves. Theresa May, the EU, and the ‘remainer parliament’ are all amongst the targets, but none more so than civil servants.

Thus, recently, the first Brexit Secretary, David Davis, denounced the “crap job” the civil service did of the Brexit negotiations. The charge sheet again is one of entrenched opposition to Brexit and ‘pro-EU’ sympathy. The alleged result was that Brexit was unnecessarily delayed and that Britain failed to get a good deal, still less the deal which would have allowed the promises of Brexiters to be realised. However, there are three big problems with this analysis – or perhaps four if you count the fact that, as I identified in that first blog post, and many others also said at the time, it was obvious from day one that this was where Brexit was going to end up.

The case for the defence

The first problem is that what is believed to be the biggest research study of the civil service ever conducted, led by Andrew Kakabadse, Professor of Governance and Leadership at Henley Business School, concluded unequivocally that “there is no evidence of bias against Brexit by the Civil Service or civil servants. I found no civil servants who attempted to frustrate or disrupt the Brexit negotiations due to their alleged anti-Brexit or pro-European sentiments”. This goes to the heart of the entire issue, and could not be a clearer refutation of the Brexiters’ case against the civil service.

Of course, they have never accepted the findings of this study, and have continued to make those claims since it was published in 2018. Nor does it take a huge leap of imagination to think that, if confronted with it, they would dismiss it as ‘remainer bias’, since academics are regarded as being just as suspect as civil servants (unless, of course, they are one of those academics who supports Brexit, such as Patrick Minford or Robert Tombs, who then automatically become distinguished intellectuals and totally free of all bias).

The second problem is with the accusation that civil servants (or for that matter others) delayed Brexit. This has become an unquestioned belief amongst many Brexiters, and many of the general public. In fact, what is most striking about Brexit is how quickly it was done. The initial Article 50 period of two years was, it’s true, extended by eight months from March 2019 to January 2020, but that was almost entirely due to the fact that the Tory government chose to hold not just one but two General Elections, as well as a leadership contest, after having triggered Article 50. Together, these knocked at least six, and probably seven, months out of the negotiations. As for the subsequent trade negotiations, few thought they could be completed as quickly as the year they actually took, a year in which the massive disruption of the pandemic occurred.

So there is no basis for saying that Brexit was delayed by the civil service. In any case the real problem with the tempo of Brexit was the excessive speed with which it was undertaken. It is now widely agreed on all sides (£) that Article 50 was triggered far too early, without proper preparation or agreement on the UK position, and this was entirely because Theresa May accepted (or agreed with) Brexiter insistence that delay would be betrayal. Subsequently, what Johnson and Frost were later to denounce as a wholly unacceptable agreement about Northern Ireland was made solely to avoid extending the negotiations, and their total refusal to extend the transition period was one of the reasons why both businesses and the government were so badly prepared for its ending, just days after the trade agreement was finalised on Christmas Eve 2020.

All of this was self-imposed by Brexit-supporting politicians, and at the urging of Brexiters, and had nothing at all to do with civil servants who repeatedly warned against it. Indeed, it was the issue of unrealistic implementation timescales that began the conflicts between Priti Patel and Sir Philip Rutnam, which ended in his resignation and a payment of £340,000 for unfair dismissal amid the bullying claims.

As for the accusation that it was civil service sabotage or ineptitude that led to Britain getting a poor deal, this is falsified by the fact that Boris Johnson, and all his MPs, fought the 2019 General Election on the claim that, as regards the Withdrawal Agreement, it was an excellent deal. They said the same thing about the subsequent trade agreement. If the civil service had negotiated such bad deals, why did these politicians even agree them, let alone sing their praises? And in any case, which comes back to the core issue, what was this better Brexit deal which would have delivered the promises? If these included the ‘exact same benefits’ as EU membership, and no Irish border anywhere, then they were never going to be delivered because they are not deliverable.

The bigger picture

In linking his resignation to Brexit, Raab revealed the ongoing hostility of Brexiters to the civil service, as well as aspects of the still ongoing ‘battle for the Brexit narrative’. That battle has now largely shifted from a debate about whether Brexit has failed because, with the exception of a handful of admittedly very vocal diehards, the Brexiters realise they have all but lost that.

One illustration of this was the outcome of this week’s parliamentary debate about holding a public inquiry into the effects of Brexit, a debate held because a public petition demanded it. The fact that the government refused to hold such an inquiry, and the fact that no high-profile Brexiter supported the call for one – indeed only one Brexiter MP, Adam Holloway, even attended the debate – is a tacit admission that any such inquiry would show the effects to have been hugely damaging. Hence the ‘battle for the narrative’ is increasingly turning to arguments about who is to blame for the failures and damage of Brexit – Allister Heath, again, supplying a splenetic and spectacularly illogical contribution this week (£) – with the civil service being amongst those most frequently lined up.

Equally, and as the Raab resignation also illustrates, Brexiters are shifting their focus to a wider contestation between ‘Brexitist’ or ‘National’ Conservatism and what they would no doubt call the ‘Wokerati’ or the ‘New Elite’. In that context, the post-Brexit discussion about the civil service, with which Raab’s resignation has become explicitly linked, is potentially quite different to the more familiar one of the possible desirability of party-political appointments to the civil service or the possible problem of party-political bias amongst civil servants.

Indeed, the key to understanding this whole issue of Brexit and the civil service is that it isn’t the party-political impartiality of the civil service that Brexiters have called into question. Rather, it is the more fundamental question of whether the civil service should operate on the basis of belief rather than facts and be guided by zealotry rather than legality. (It’s actually a very similar question to that posed by Brexit for the BBC, in the way that factual reporting of Brexit is readily perceived and portrayed by Brexiters as being animated by lack of belief in Brexit, but that is a story for another time.)

The stakes in this question are very high, and if Brexiters could but see it they are higher even than Brexit. For what Brexiters should be considering is not the desirability of having a civil service imbued with true belief in Brexit, but the dangers to them, quite as much as to everyone else, of a future civil service imbued with true belief in a creed that they find obnoxious, and willing to sacrifice both reason and legality in pursuit of that belief.

No comments:

Post a Comment