James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
The furore surrounding Sir Ivan Rogers’ resignation as UK Ambassador to the EU threw up many questions. Are most civil servants hostile to Brexit? Is short-term politics taking precedence over long-term planning? Are civil servants being ignored? But it all masks a fundamental question: does the Government have the apparatus to deliver Brexit and a pivot to a global role?
There are reasons for concern. First, the ambiguous role of the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEXEU). It isn’t going to be the Department that thinks about Britain’s future role outside the EU. It isn’t a hub for major policy expertise, which theoretically lies elsewhere in departments. And while it might nominally lead on negotiations when the time comes, it will always be a surrogate of Number 10, and will be treated as such within Government and those we negotiate with. Its creation was a mistake for these reasons – but also because it forces policymakers to think about Europe as an entirely discrete issue, rather than as part of a developing foreign policy.
Second, there is a lack of policy expertise not just at DEXEU but across government. There are specific problems, such as the lack of trade experts, resulting from the fact we’ve been a member of the EU and haven’t retained certain policy expertise. But there is a deeper issue with the way the civil service operates, which is to cultivate generalists not specialists.
People in the civil service are always training for the next job, and know moving around departments is good for their career. They don’t immerse themselves in the deep subject knowledge required for policy development and giving ongoing advice to politicians. The “expert” civil service rarely is. This is a much bigger problem outside the traditional “prestige” departments of the Treasury and Foreign Office – but Brexit will affect the entirety of Government.
Third, there is the culture of the civil service. It’s not just that senior civil servants are part of the same upper-middle class that overwhelmingly voted Remain. It’s that many civil servants don’t understand their role. Many think their first job is to challenge Ministers. That’s clearly wrong – it is to implement the will of the electorate expressed through the democratic process.
The other result of the focus on “challenge” is that the civil service does not generate serious, positive ideas. The instinct is to point out all of the problems with a Minister’s proposals. That’s a useful thing to do, but it limits civil servants to being “red-team” members – people that can pick holes in others’ ideas and arguments. This usually leaves politicians and advisers to do the policy design – which in this case is the enormous challenge of creating the overall vision for Brexit and a global pivot required, and the policy framework that will underpin it. This is unsustainable.
We will know soon whether the Government can overcome these issues. Theresa May is set to make a speech that will outline her vision for life outside the EU. This is a big moment – those that led the Leave campaign and those that voted for it will all be asking the same question as they listen to her: is this what we voted for? After that, we’ll be into the negotiations and we’ll know how prepared we really are.