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Brexit through the civil service looking glass


AT A recent county business summit, I was fortunate to have a masterclass on the senior civil service’s view of Brexit. The masterclass was unintentional, but it came from a presentation by a former senior (maybe very senior) civil servant turned quangocrat turned research fellow.

The talk was supposedly on Brexit and the UK’s changing role in Europe, which I would have summarised as moving from rule-taker and unwilling financier to equal trading party.

The first point the speaker made was that there is a huge amount of negotiation to be done and detailed. On the EU side, much of this will require ratification – often unanimously – through the various parts of the EU’s legislature. This, we were told, is impossible to achieve by 31 December this year and the inevitable conclusion is that the UK will need to seek an extension to 30June 2021, which could be done by way of a one-line Bill. This, it seems to be assumed, will pass with no problems as the government has a thumping majority. The inconvenient truth that this majority arose directly from a manifesto commitment to complete the agreement by 31 December 2020 is regarded as a political foible rather than a democratic instruction from the people who pay the civil service’s wages.

It was also pointed out, tediously, that the EU says it is impossible and that we will get an agreement only if we agree to a level playing field, as outlined by the new incarnation of the mouthpiece of the EU apparatchiks, Ursula von der Leyen. And there, in a nutshell, is the civil service problem that Dominic Cummings has to overcome. The direct instruction of the UK electorate is a minor consideration compared with the statements of the EU autocracy.

One wonders what on earth the civil service has been doing for the past three years. Notwithstanding the abject failure of Mrs May to deliver any form of political leadership, surely these intelligent and wise bastions of good government will have considered that the UK is leaving, that a withdrawal agreement is necessary and, even if the precise terms are up in the air, could have produced drafts of the necessary documents? Apparently not.

They see the need to compromise from the outset. The question was what concessions we would make on defence and security (where we have a very strong hand). And of course on the bellwether, fishing.

We were told that fishing rights in UK waters were very important to the French, and that fishing is an economic irrelevance to the UK (around 0.1 per cent of GDP). What we were not told was that the contribution of the French fleet to national GDP was similarly small.  In ten minutes on I found that in 2015 (the most recent data) French fishing employed 5,981 full-time equivalents, compared with the UK’s 8,034. Spain employs 29,322. The relevant figures for fish processing are France 11,218, Spain 17,693 and UK 13,637. The data is here. 

So the reality is that while Macron may make a lot of noise, he is arguing about an industry that is smaller and less relevant to his country that it is to the UK. But of course the French have a civil service which understands that it exists to advance the national interest.

Perhaps the greatest summary of Brexit came from a speaker from the National Institute of Social and Economic Research, who suggested that the vote to leave was a statement that the 1970s centralising model of the ‘man from Whitehall (and by extension Brussels)’ being all-knowing had failed. And he had data to illustrate it (the wonderful thing about macroeconomists is that they have data to support their positions and, generally, interpret it objectively).

Those mandarins who wish to survive the forthcoming purge would be well advised to keep in mind that SW1 is located in the capital of the United Kingdom, not a distant province of the Brussels empire. 

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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