Sunday, November 29, 2020
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The ignorant bluffers taking us into Brexit

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THE Daily Telegraph reports that our government is spending up to £180million on consultants for work on thinking, shaping and delivering Brexit – four years after the referendum! Nick Davies of the Institute for Government said: ‘The deals raise questions over whether enough has been done to build up civil service expertise.’ Of course it hasn’t!

In a 2018 Spectator article, ‘The Rise of the Bluffocracy – Britain has become hooked on a culture of inexpertise’, James Ball and Andrew Greenway skewered the bluffers with PPE or law degrees who have never had proper jobs yet fill the well-paid senior ranks of government, civil service, quangos, think tanks and media in a symbiotic bubble. They are insiders who know how the system works, how to use it and how to play the game. Ball and Andrew thought only a ‘decent-sized war’ would present an opportunity to effect change but the Army has admitted to the Defence Committee that it can’t even field a single division so any war would not last long enough to drain the foetid swamp.

On October 8 the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) met to discuss ‘Learning for Government from EU Exit Preparations’, a National Audit Office report that ‘sets out insights for government from its preparations for EU Exit, which have relevance for the civil service’s continued work on managing the UK’s exit from the EU and more widely.’

The report tells us that £4.4billion was spent on Brexit between June 2016 and January 2020 (that’s £100million per month, much of it on consultants) and that 22,000 civil servants have been working on the preparations but that there is still ‘a significant amount’ of work for government to do. With precious little to show for this cost and effort, you might think the NAO has several volumes of lessons for the government and civil service to learn, but no, the NAO does it in 33 paragraphs, and for the meeting the PAC managed to reduce these to just four sentences of ‘Key Findings’ which, to put it crudely, merely state the bleedin’ obvious (my emphases):

·         ‘The need for government to improve how it deals with uncertainty by planning for scenarios which will have a significant impact and could reasonably occur, even if some of these may not be the desired outcome.’

·         The importance of government developing clear structures for quick-decision making and clear accountability. It should also draw on expertise in implementation from the start as a routine part of policy development to build a realistic understanding of the scale and complexity of the task.’

·         ‘The need to engage early with partners, stakeholders, businesses and individuals to understand and communicate what is required of them.’

·         ‘The importance of strong financial management and the need to track spending from the start.’

Blimey, who’d have thought? Not the Government or civil service – or their consultants apparently. Yet these same four ‘key findings’ could apply to the current Covid debacle and just about everything else since the South Sea Bubble. 

Instead of the grilling and illuminating responses I hoped for, the meeting was a mundane affair. The MPs didn’t probe much and the civil servants sounded as if they shared a script, using similar vocabularies, idioms and speech styles. This was the Bluffocracy at work. I’ll bet none of them know practicalities such as which documents a truck driver bound from Herefordshire for Hanover with a load of apples will need to present to enter Kent, board a ferry at Dover and clear customs at Calais.   

There were no big hitters among the MPs attending by Zoom. Barry Gardiner and Sir Bernard Jenkin were both absent. Only Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (C, Cotswolds) seemed to know ‘stuff’. A few questions about the prospect of lorry queues in Kent all received reassuring replies about UK pre-emptive measures and preparedness and EU co-operation. Nobody seemed to realise that the most likely cause of a logjam in Kent or inbound traffic from the EU is a blockade of French Channel ports by irate French fishermen. It’s easy to do and very effective. They have form and no French government has ever been inclined to intervene.      

The NAO’s bland descriptions of the debacle that has been and continues to be the Brexit process belie the scale of mismanagement, incompetence and profligacy that, now turbocharged, has been extrapolated into the Covid crisis. Time and again Governments and the civil service turn to the usual suspects: the think tanks, vested interests like the CBI, serial incompetents such as Serco and G4S and those other nest-feathering, gravy-train season-ticket holders, the management consultants.

Stanley Baldwin started precautions against German air raids in 1935. Rearmament and recruitment of citizen auxiliaries gathered pace (Territorial Army, Navy and RAF volunteer reserves). If the bluffocracy clergy is to be reformed it must be leavened by a laity of men and women, unaffiliated to any political party, think tank, trade organisation or quango. Active or retired members of the public who have had proper jobs, experienced professionals with practical knowledge from public and private sectors. Part-time auxiliaries in local groups throughout the country (the pandemic has highlighted the willingness to volunteer and efficacy of participation in web-based communications) who would not make the decisions but, unencumbered by party and political intrigue, perform sanity checks and peer review of government policies, plans and strategies, interrogate data and evaluate the results. They would replace the select committees or comprise at least 50 per cent of their membership, perhaps populate a reformed House of Lords. These cadres would be think tanks without agendas – reserves of practical competence and experience to be mobilised when required. A sorely needed resource, given the educational and professional profiles of most civil servants and politicians of all stripes. The country’s innate latent wealth of skill, experience and knowledge was and is spurned. The civil service (for whom such cadres would be anathema) mould should have been discarded for the Brexit process. The £180million would have been better spent establishing such an organisation.   

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David Owen
David Owen has over 30 years’ experience of international trade and contracting, mainly with UK and German companies, managing oil, gas and mining projects in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

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