John Longworth is the Co-Chair of Leave Means Leave, and is a former Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article criticising the Treasury for its silence and mendacity in respect of the post-Brexit economy.
Reflecting on this caused me to think back over my lifetime to the behaviour of the civil service in managing British decline, in their own interests, rather than promoting a positive and dynamic version of Britain.
In my experience of dealing with government over nearly thirty five years as a businessman, the Civil Service have all too often been uncivil (in fact downright vicious) in pursuit or defence of their own narrow interests.
They are certainly not servants, often running rings around hapless ministers and dividing and ruling interest groups for their own ends. If we are to deliver for the British people, Ministers need to get a grip, right now, of their senior officials.
Recently Lord Maude, Nick Timothy and Dominic Cummings have all highlighted the difficulties posed by reluctant civil servants. In the business world, we would bring them into a room and clearly tell them “either get with the programme or get out”.
Probably the only Prime Minister who had the temerity to both shrink the size of government and to reform its workings was Margaret Thatcher, but even she failed to achieve fundamental reform.
I am old enough to have had the privilege to sit on Thatcher’s Deregulation Task Force. Being young and enthusiastic and filled with enterprise, I devoted quite a bit of time to deconstructing regulatory requirements and with the help of city lawyers, worked to describe how the root problem even at that time, was the EU legislation. Not least the incompatibility of continental, codified, Napoleonic law with our English Law, goal-based system.
The minister responsible for the project was Michael Heseltine. This did not help, because it became quickly clear to me that he had no intention of deregulating in a meaningful way and no intention whatsoever of tackling the EU.
However, his positioning was as nothing compared with the civil servants, the worst offenders being in the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), who buried every serious attempt to deregulate, wrapped the work in more red tape and, if that failed, played for time, for years, until the next government arrived and the whole project was dropped.
Over the intervening years I have seen this scenario played out many times, the civil service undermining reform or change of any kind which doesn’t suit them, and the same thing will be happening now in respect of Brexit.
When the civil service look at the European Commission they see themselves in the mirror. Power, privilege and entitlement derive from the Brussels machine, not to mention all those nice lunches and soirees at international meetings, paid for by taxpayers and enterprise at home.
Of course I have also met some valiant exceptions, who courageously and genuinely want to do the right thing for our country and to use taxpayers money wisely, but these are individuals fighting against the system, often at personal cost
And then there are the lobby groups, including those supposedly representing business, These are themselves all too often bureaucracies of self interest, representing multi nationals who feed off the system, have the resources to game the system, play off barriers to entry of competition, love protectionism and cartels, and are generally in cahoots with the interests of the civil servants.
After all, why do civil servants like to talk to big business? It’s because they also see themselves in the mirror, whereas entrepreneurs – challenging, disparate and short of time – are in the “too difficult to handle” tray.
So we have a situation whereby both the Treasury in particular and other civil servants, especially those in the “first division” who run the show, have already delayed by a year the process of leaving the EU, having first and in dereliction of duty made no plans before the referendum.
They are now leading ministers and the country into a semi-detached limbo: a Brexit in name only, the net consequence of which will be that Britain will be financially worse off than we otherwise would have been by staying in the EU.
If we strike a deal which preserves an inferior version of what we have now, places ongoing constraints on what we can do outside the EU, delays our departure (a ‘transition period’) and thus the benefits of departing – and if on top of all that, we must pay for the privilege – we are bound to be worse off almost by definition.
In contrast, the enterprise part the economy, which represents the vast majority – the self employed, the entrepreneurs, the private business owners and who find a voice in the business group ‘Leave means Leave’ – are straining at the leash to simply leave and get on and crystallise the benefits of Brexit. This will make us richer as a nation than we otherwise would have been by staying in the EU.
The latter is the nightmare scenario for civil servants. It will mean we have actually left and the power and entitlement generated by the EU will have disappeared. Suddenly UK civil servants will be accountable and cannot blame Brussels or beat their political “masters” (an oxymoron) with the Brussels stick. And to top it, they will have been proved wrong about the costs and benefits of leaving. Horrors upon horrors!
Ministers must have the courage to publish a plan for leaving with the EU with no deal. A positive vision for Britain’s economic future needs to be mapped out and announced this autumn to give absolute certainty for business. The transition period starts now, not in March 2019.
To help this process the Government must ignore the civil servants and should draft in some real business people, those who have been entrepreneurs or business owners, to help with radical change right now.
Ministers should then look at a comprehensive and long overdue reform of the civil service, preferably along the lines of the USA, whereby the senior ranks are removed and replaced with political appointees by each successive administration. That way the electorate might actually get the results they voted for, rather than what suits Sir Humphrey.