Dave Penman: Are civil servants really Europhile Brexit-resisters?

The civil service can deliver the best outcome possible from exiting the EU, says the FDA union's general secretary – but only if it is given clear political direction as well as the required capability and capacity


By Dave Penman

02 Sep 2016

In Stephen Spielberg’s 2002 Oscar-nominated film Minority Report, future crime is solved before it happens. Precogs, lying in a pool of who knows what, have visions which lead Tom Cruise et al to apprehend criminals before they’ve committed the crime. 

If the film were to be made again this summer, Agatha the main Precog would not be played by a bald Samantha Morton but by Steve Baker MP, who spent the bank holiday weekend speculating about future betrayal by Europhile civil servants trying to undermine the Brexit negotiations. He went as far as to suggest that EMERGENCY legislation (I’m sure as he was dreaming this up 'EMERGENCY' was all in caps) was needed to allow for those scheming civil servants to be summarily dismissed.

All of this comes amid fevered speculation over ministerial bust-ups and endless column inches about the Brexit process and outcome. Some of this is understandable. It’s probably the biggest single political and economic issue that the country has faced since the Second World War and, like that conflict, it appeared to many on these shores that little was actually happening in the first few months. 


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In reality of course a tremendous amount is happening. The civil servants, in both the key central departments and in teams being set up across Whitehall, are working hard to try to assess the scale of the challenge we face. This includes looking at the policy, legislative and capability issues that flow from exiting the EU. Options will be considered and ultimately ministers will decide on our key objectives and what is required to deliver them.

So why, amid all of this, would an honorable Member of Parliament be speculating about sabotage from civil servants? As I commented to a journalist at the time, it could, of course, just be simple paranoia from politicians who inherently distrust the civil service’s ability or inclination to make Brexit a success. 

Or perhaps, just perhaps, they’re getting their retaliation in first.

"It’s easier to blame Europhile civil servants than accept that the particular objective was unachievable in the first place"

The Brexit process and outcome is going to be complex, drawn out and, in the end, not to everyone’s liking. Compromises are going to have to be made as we seek a negotiated settlement that delivers not only for the UK’s interests, but also for the EU member states; all 27 of them. Anyone who has ever seriously negotiated knows you can’t enter that process with fixed positions. Any number of issues will impact upon Brexit discussions, with the added complexity of differing interests from each member state that will have its own particular economic and political issues to deal with.

I have no doubt that some issues will be settled to the satisfaction of majority public opinion, but trades will need to be made, compromises agreed and transitional arrangements cobbled together. It can’t all be done at once and trade negotiations in particular are often delivered over decades, never mind months.

It’s easy for those not responsible for delivering a negotiated outcome to think that by repeatedly stating your fixed position you will ultimately achieve your aims. Their absolute unwavering belief in their own truth reinforces that viewpoint and any outcome seen as a diluted version of that belief is a failing at best, or betrayal at worst. If only those tasked with delivering the deal had “truly believed”, then the outcome would have been different. 

It’s easier to blame Europhile civil servants than accept that the particular objective was unachievable in the first place, or the fault of a politician who discovered the stark reality of negotiation was different from the rhetoric of the campaign bus.

The civil service can deliver the best outcome possible from exiting the European Union, but only if it is given clear political direction as well as the required capability and capacity. This cannot be delivered as a zero sum game as some are starting to suggest, certainly not from a civil service that will have lost nearly half its resources over a decade.

So, those who profess to have the country’s interests at heart would be better off spending their time ensuring that the government of the day provides the civil service with the necessary tools to deliver the successful exit from the EU, rather than wasting their bank holiday weekend dreaming up PreCrime from so-called Europhile civil servants.

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