Sir Ivan Rogers’ decision yesterday to resign as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU is an incredibly important moment in British politics.
Decisions by British civil servants aren’t generally considered topics of national interest. But Rogers’ resignation, nine months earlier than his planned departure in September from a role he’d served in since November 2013, is different.
It is a reflection of the transcendent shifts in British political discourse driven by ideological motivations irrespective of evidence and facts. As Jonathan Portes, a distinguished British-American economist, recently observed, when it comes to Brexit, ‘Britain is not getting the serious debate it deserves… it’s time for a discussion based on evidence’. But beyond the exasperating “Brexit means Brexit” slogan, we still have little understanding of what a Brexit is actually going to entail.
As it stands, Article 50 is going to be triggered in March. Yet Rogers’ resignation letter, which stated a clear discontent with ministers’ inconsistent thinking on Brexit, is the clearest indication of how far we’ve come since the referendum. His resignation was met with cheers from the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. Former Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, accused Rogers of disloyalty over the latter’s concern that the UK’s departure from the EU could take up to 10 years. Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader and an ardent leave campaigner, celebrated Rogers’ departure and advocated further resignations from “fanatical remainer” British diplomats.
Theresa May’s silence on this issue, and her government’s continued inability to adequately defend impartial expertise - as we witnessed in the aftermath of the recent High Court ruling when judges involved were labelled “enemies of the people” by the Daily Mail - is compelling evidence that the government is succumbing to Eurosceptic pressure on Brexit. Failure to protect the institutions designed to limit the policy blunders of brute ideologues, such as an impartial civil service, has grave implications for the quality of that service itself.
As Anthony King, Professor of Politics and British Government and co-author of The Blunders of Our Governments, has noted, the civil service is not nearly as influential nor confident in speaking truth to power as it once was. The implications of his research are pertinent today: should we continue to denigrate the advice of impartial experts, replacing them with those who will only tell us what we want to hear, we dangerously enhance the likelihood of costly mistakes.
With Rogers’ resignation, Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Labour PM Tony Blair, noted that Britain will enter Article 50 negotiations with a discernible lack of multilateral negotiating experience on its side. The EU faces no such problem.
The European Commission, led by Michel Barnier, the former European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, possesses a wealth of diplomatic experience. The Brexit negotiations constitute possibly the single most important negotiations in a generation, and unless an exceptionally experienced (and willing) diplomat can be found, Britain will struggle to find the expertise required to navigate a highly complex set of diplomatic and economic arrangements. What could possibly go wrong?
In this light, Sir Ivan Rogers’ decision should not surprise us. The political discourse has shifted beyond the boundaries of rational, evidence-based discussions. With the government unwilling to stand behind its impartial experts, I am increasingly concerned we are shifting to a new paradigm in which ‘the truth’ is no longer objectively defined, but by each according to his own wishes.
The civil service’s prerogative of objectively and appropriately informing ministers on policy has made it a target among those who accuse concerned experts of disloyalty and being so-called ‘biased remoaners’. It seems perfectly plausible that Rogers’ resignation is an indicator of what is yet to come.
The devaluation of impartial evidence-based analysis at the expense of powerful proclamations that Britain can ‘have its cake and eat it’, regardless of evidence demonstrating otherwise, highlights another disturbing occurrence in British politics: the continued notion that the will of the people is “fixed” in time, and cannot possibly be challenged or subject to change.
This has emboldened Eurosceptics pushing for a Hard Brexit. True to populist fashion, they claim to represent the one true meaning of the referendum vote, despite the fact that the data shows a country deeply divided on what Brexit should consist of. John Curtice’s polling for the UK and EU programme is demonstrative of this division: an apparent 45% of those polled prioritised retaining Single Market access, whilst 41% stated controlling immigration as priority.
Although he cautions against drawing sweeping conclusions from these figures, on one point he is resolutely clear – the country is as divided on Brexit as it was six months ago.
Accordingly, the implications of a debate overwhelmed by ideological fervour are that the complexities involved in withdrawing from a deeply intertwined set of political and economic arrangements are brushed aside as minor talking points. Worse, as Rogers’ resignation clearly shows, expressing concern over potential negative costs of Brexit is considered taboo. Engaging in candid discussion and the formulation of comprehensive risk assessments, as the Bank of England did prior to the referendum outcome, is now chastised as ‘talking Britain down’.
Portes is right in calling for an evidence-based discussion. If Britain is to navigate the complexities of Brexit, there must be a forthright presentation of the realistic options available after EU withdrawal. Allowing civil servants to be pilloried by Eurosceptic politicians and newspapers subverts both the effectiveness and the impartiality of the civil service. Britain desperately needs experts with extensive knowledge of EU diplomacy and negotiation if it is to achieve favourable terms of withdrawal. With Sir Ivan Rogers’ resignation, such expertise is increasingly in short-supply.