Dave Penman: My son has it right on Europe

While civil servants navigate the EU divorce, politicians need to ponder why so many fear what is beyond our borders


By Dave Penman

05 Jul 2016

The Union Jack and flag of Europe flutter outside a building as the UK government prepares to extricate the country from the EU. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like most of you, on the night of Thursday 23 June I went to bed in Europe and woke up somewhere else, less familiar.

On the day of the vote I was glad it was all over, sick to the back teeth of a debate that was becoming less edifying the longer it continued. “Careful what you wish for” is the phrase that comes to mind.


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While the result may have shocked many, the resultant turmoil was no surprise. The ramifications of the result have broader economic, political and constitutional consequences than many had predicted. But even in the space of a few days, those consequences have multiplied exponentially and sent shockwaves beyond our own new shiny border with Europe. 

There’s been an interesting self-examination in some quarters as to how we could have ended up here. The three main political parties and leaders were united in the Remain camp yet were ignored willfully by the electorate. That disconnect is nothing new, but its scale – and the enormous impact this decision has had – will have many a politician thinking differently.

My own son Jack, refreshingly curious and interested, wanted to understand the consequences for his generation. The 13-year-old me would have had self-imposed geographical boundaries around the west of Scotland and at a stretch, across the border to England. It struck me that many in his generation instinctively consider paths beyond their own imme-diate horizon. He was clearly worried and I sought to reassure him. He’s destined to be an engineer and I thought he might have been considering studying or working in Europe. “Will it stop me studying at MIT in Boston?” he asked. I was at once able to reassure him and destroy his young dreams. “It wouldn’t be an issue,” I said, placing a comforting arm around his shoulder. “The fees are $40,000 a year so you can forget that option in a hurry.”

He’s lucky; not only does he clearly have a caring father, but he lives in the south-east of England, goes to a good school, will have a chance of a university education and sees the world – not just Europe – as a place within his grasp to study, work or visit. There were clearly many reasons why people voted to leave, but for a significant proportion I get the sense that this is not how they viewed the world. The EU was a threat not an opportunity. They had been let down by successive governments, could see no immediate advantage from our membership and instinctively wanted to kick back at the political establishment.

The new prime minister, even possibly a new government, faces an unprecedented task over the next few months and years in extricating ourselves from European institutions, regulations and legislation. The scale of that challenge is difficult to even calculate. It is not simply negotiating the divorce, but also what arrangement we have for contact in the future. So much of our daily life is regulated or impacted by our membership of the EU and as we withdraw from its influence, we need to decide what we replace it with. That will not be a simple task. Every area of influence – whether it be regional development, agriculture policy, employment protection or standards in manufacturing to name but a smidgen – will need to be considered, debated and squabbled over. The government, new or old, is going to have to consider a plethora of fundamental policy issues on a scale that dwarfs those in any normal change of governing party. And all of this needs to be done while keeping the lights on as well, though of course those bulbs don’t have to be halogen anymore!

For any of this to be a reality, the government and citizens of the UK are going to need the civil service like never before. I said on the morning of the result – as markets and currency plunged and contingency plans were executed – that people were already seeing the benefit of a permanent and politically neutral civil service. The capacity and capability of the service will be sorely tested in the coming months. Against a back drop of depleted resources, and the threat of more cuts to come as public finances worsen, investment will be needed in people, skills and resources and that’s been counterintuitive to the government up until now.

Dealing with crises is what the civil service does, as Lord O’Donnell reminded us recently, although this one is on an unprecedented scale. I have every confidence that ministers will get the support they need to manage the divorce, and it is to be hoped civil servants get the resources and directional clarity they need. Accusations of Whitehall Europhilia will need to be quickly put to bed by the new prime minister, and he or she needs to get on with job in hand supported by our incredible civil service.

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