Interview: Former UK Trade & Investment chief Sir Andrew Cahn – "The lack of Brexit planning was a humiliation for this country"
The former head of UK Trade and Investment sits down for lunch with CSW's Matt Foster to talk Brexit fallout, life outside Whitehall – and why life begins at 60
Who? Sir Andrew Cahn spent over 30 years in public service, most recently as the chief executive of UK Trade and Investment until his retirement in 2011. During a career which began at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1973, he has served as deputy head of the Cabinet Office’s European Secretariat and chief of staff to European Commission vice president Neil Kinnock in the late 1990s. He now chairs the global board of environmental charity WWF, and is a non-executive director of Nomura International.
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Why he backed staying in the EU
"My father was a German Jewish refugee. He fled Hitler. I was brought up to believe that institutions are not stable and permanent, that they constantly have to be fought for and strengthened – and also that war was quite possible, that currencies can suddenly become worthless, that fascists can take over your democratic country, that the civilised peoples of Europe can do dreadful things to each other. All of those things are true, and I think we have forgotten that."
How he felt after the EU vote
"On the morning of June 24 I slept for about half an hour. And I woke up at about 1am thinking: “Something’s going wrong.” Later, a friend and I decided we were so miserable about this that we should go off and play a round of golf. And on the fourth hole I scored a hole-in-one for the first time in my life – but it had no sweetness for me at all because I was so miserable."
Brexit contingency planning
"I find it unaccountable, shocking in fact, that David Cameron as prime minister prohibited the civil service from doing preparatory work, because it was always going to be close. It was simply irresponsible of the then-prime minister to say to the civil service: 'You must not do any thinking.' I think it was a humiliation for this country that our partners in Europe should say: 'You’ve voted for this, but you have no idea what you want, you made no plans, you don’t know what you’re talking about.'"
The scale of the Brexit challenge for Whitehall
"People have said that this is the biggest civil service challenge in peacetime – and there may be a bit of hyperbole in that, but there’s no doubt that it’s a huge, huge challenge. Everybody focuses on the fact there aren’t enough trade negotiators – and indeed, there is a real problem about getting some skills.
"But actually the real challenge is that you have at least six simultaneous negotiations to conduct from a position of weakness in most cases – we will simply be in a weak negotiating position. And most of those who have real skills in negotiating in Europe have made themselves unacceptable because they campaigned to stay in."
"I don’t quite see the argument for the Department for International Trade. I don’t think there’s enough work there, certainly not for the next two years."
The new Department for International Trade, which has swallowed up UKTI
"I don’t quite see the argument for the Department for International Trade. I don’t think there’s enough work there, certainly not for the next two years. And you’re then left with the rump of the business department.
"I understand the politics of it – it was very symbolic in all sorts of ways. And that’s usually why you have machinery of government changes, to make a political point. That’s fine, it’s for politicians to decide. But there is a really serious frictional cost to it and it makes life more difficult for the civil servants who are trying to deliver."
The difficulty of working across departments
"When I was in UKTI one of the things that I tried to do was to make exporting and inward investment a whole-of-government effort. I would go off to the Department of Health and say: 'You know, it really matters what your policy on pharmaceutical pricing is for inward investment, do think about this, do join up government, let’s talk about it.'
"And in the end, I didn’t get anywhere because the Department of Health really doesn’t care about it – and if I was in the Department of Health I wouldn’t care. There are a lot of problems in the health department – it’s very difficult to manage to NHS – and the last thing they need is someone like me saying: “Incidentally, we want to do something different from what you might otherwise choose to do because of the trade implications.”
Why senior officials need more outside experience
"I would like to see most senior civil servants having been outside government for a bit, even if that is just going off and working in a local authority or in a Local Economic Partnership. It doesn’t have to mean going off to an investment bank in the City.
"It’s a really valuable thing to do, and I would also like more outsiders to have had a spell in government – more business folk, people from the accountancy and law firms, coming in and spending time understanding what government is all about. Because the civil service is a complicated business – it’s difficult, it’s challenging. And outsiders often fail to realise that."
Ministers pointing the finger at civil servants
"I joined the civil service in 1973. And back then there was a very clear, unspoken convention that ministers did not blame the civil service, and that civil servants never revealed anything about ministers.
"I would like to see most senior civil servants having been outside government for a bit, even if that is just going off and working in a local authority."
"I read the other day the obituary of a former colleague who’d been permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1980s. And it said of him that he was a “traditional civil servant”. He’d also been a private secretary in Number 10. And he would never tell anybody, not even close colleagues, stories about his time there... I think that’s changed. It’s not a wholly bad thing that it’s changed – because it’s all part and parcel of the drive to make civil servants more accountable for what they do."
John Major and civil service reform
"I still recall a two-hour meeting in Number 10, and every Cabinet minister and every permanent secretary had to be there. John Major started by saying 'This is important. This matters to me. It matters to my administration. We are going to make our civil service, our public sector, more efficient, more responsive to the needs of the public.'
"It had a real impact, not least because Number 10 followed up with the two or three ministers and the few permanent secretaries who weren’t there and said: 'Why weren’t you there? The prime minister noticed you weren’t there!'"
Adjusting to life outside Whitehall
"I think it’s a glide path. And in my first couple of years I was working four-and-a-half days a week, the phone was always on and I was looking at my emails quite a lot. I now try and adopt the sensible strategy – I look at my emails in the morning and I look at my emails in the evening, and I don’t look in between!"
Why life begins at 60
"When I retired I was given a very good piece of advice which was that, in your sixties, there are three buckets in your life. One bucket is your professional life – you want to go on having a professional responsibility, a non-executive one perhaps, but a job which pays you some money.
"The second third of your time is spent giving something back – working in the not-for-profit, charitable sector. That is its own reward – and it really is a privilege to be chair of WWF. But the third bucket is 'me time', which civil servants don’t have – doing the things you want to do that you haven’t had a chance to do in your career. I’ve got an allotment and I grow vegetables. I’m a patron or a friend of all the big London museums and theatre companies and I go to a lot of plays and exhibitions. I walk in the mountains. And I fail to get my golf handicap down below 18."
The Gilbert Scott, St Pancras: A modern twist on British classics, in the elegant dining room of the Midland Grand Hotel at London’s St Pancras Station.
Starter: Grelot onion with labneh and beetroot
Main: Slow-cooked lamb shoulder with pea broth and basil; Arancini risotto with marinated tomato and black olive
Dessert: Tiptree strawberries, vanilla panna cotta & oat crumble
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