Why is London so Crap at Brexit?


By Julian French.



Why is London so crap at Brexit? In my 2015 book Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (which is of course brilliant and very reasonably-priced and can be bought incredibly reasonably at www.amazon.co.uk) I state, “…‘managing decline’ has become the ethos of so many British governments and too often simply masks the damaging lack of imagination of a political class and a bureaucratic elite who have for so long seen strategy made elsewhere that they now take decline for granted”. The book goes on, “Such failings are now apparent across government, reflective of a Westminster culture that routinely places politics before strategy”. I wrote that passage well before this year’s Brexit referendum. Sadly, as expected, London’s political and bureaucratic elite are making a mess of Brexit. Here are ten reasons why.

Devolution: there are now several competing poles of power in Britain thanks to Tony Blair’s disastrous experiment in devolution. The Westminster Parliament looks increasingly like an English parliament in which the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish rule on English matters. One of the many implicit battles of Brexit is the sovereignty of Westminster versus the encroaching sovereignty of politically inimical devolved parliaments and assemblies.

The Ruling Caste: This past weekend Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, the man who drafted Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, said that the British need mass immigration because we British are “so bloody stupid”. Sadly, this comment typifies the arrogance of what has become an unaccountable ruling bureaucratic elite for whom national sovereignty and democracy are simply inconveniences. In Riga I challenged bluntly another member of that EU governing caste who suggested openly that the British people were too ignorant to know why they voted to leave. The EU gets blamed for a lot that is not of its own making, but there is no question that the EU has also fostered a ruling bureaucratic uber-elite that treats the people with utter contempt.

Irreconcilable Remoaners: Such elite arrogance provides the political momentum for the Remoaners. Democracy works by people accepting the results of votes. Too many Remoaners are simply refusing to accept the referendum result thus turning a crisis into a disaster. Forget all the guff about respecting the vote but…that one hear’s from such people. There are many Remoaners in very high places determined to ensure Britain never leaves the EU.

Incompetent Brexiteers: Too many of the leading Brexiteers abandoned the political field of battle in the wake of the referendum in the belief the decision had been made. And, at a political level Theresa May decapitated the Brexit campaign by taking three of the leaders into government in effect muzzling them. This left the field open for Remoaners to cause trouble. A political opportunist if ever there was one it now looks like even Tony Blair senses a chance to return from the land of the walking political dead to scupper Brexit.

A Divided Cabinet: Theresa May’s Cabinet is itself hopelessly split. On one side of the split are the so-called soft Brexiteers, i.e. Remoaners, led by Philip Hammond, who want Britain to remain part of the Single Market. They want Britain to accept free movement of citizens (as agreed in the amended 1991 Maastricht Treaty), pay into the EU budget, and remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. In other words, they also want Britain to remain a member of the EU, albeit without any voting rights, the worst of all Euro-worlds. On the other side of the split are the increasingly frustrated Brexiteers. This weekend the latter set up the European Research Group in an attempt to hold Government to account over Brexit.

A Politicised Civil Service: During the thirteen years of the Blair-Brown governments the civil services became progressively politicised. This process was reinforced by the use of legions Special Advisors (SPADS) and years of politically-correct recruitment. Whereas once the Civil Service may have been said to have been patrician conservative with a small ‘c’, it is now overwhelmingly bourgeois, pro-EU and soft left. Yes, making Brexit happen is technically difficult, and yes, there are still excellent senior civil servants trying to make inchoate politics work in the finest traditions of a once fine service. However, it also appears too many senior civil servants are quietly trying to frustrate Brexit. The extent of this dissembling was made clear by Cameron Downing Street insider Daniel Korski in a recent piece in Politico.

A Hard Brexit or No Brexit: ‘Soft Brexit’, ‘hard Brexit’, ‘clean Brexit’, ‘cliff-edge Brexit’, ‘transition Brexit’, ‘one-minute past midnight Brexit’. There are now so many Brexit options an already complex political challenge is fast becoming a strategic nightmare. In fact, there are only two Brexit options – a hard Brexit or no Brexit.   This reality was reinforced to me by a senior German politician over dinner in Brussels last Wednesday.  For the EU anything else would probably presage the unravelling of an already vulnerable and fragile Union.

The Hollowed-Out British State: The EU has hollowed-out much of the British state through the transfer of ‘competences’ from London to Brussels. Proof positive of how successive British governments quietly transferred huge amount of British power to Brussels whilst telling the British people the opposite. Two leaked memos this past week have revealed the lacunae in skills in Whitehall needed to negotiate Brexit. This has (of course) been denied by Downing Street, but from my experience it rings horribly true, particularly when it comes to trade negotiators.

A Politicised Judiciary: I am not one of those who attacks the judiciary for judgements made, as I believe strongly in the separation of powers. However, the same process that shifted the political centre of gravity from soft right to soft left in Whitehall, and all the assumptions that go with it, was also applied to the judiciary by Tony Blair. Unlike many I have read the judgement of the three High Court judges on the case brought by Gina Miller to the effect that the Government cannot use Royal Prerogative to invoke Article 50. Sorry, but some of the ‘legal’ assumptions in the ruling strike me as essentially and quite clearly political.

Political Weakness: It may be that in staying ‘mum’ Theresa May is playing a wonderfully canny game in preparing the ground for Article 50 and Britain’s subsequent departure from the EU. I see nor hear no evidence of that. Rather, the same old Whitehall-Westminster foreign policy tendency of wanting to appease all without appearing to do so. It is precisely this weakness that has encouraged German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble to state this weekend that Britain will be forced to pay into the EU budget even after it leaves the EU. The consequence? Even though Britain is a top five world economic and military power it does not act like one.

A Lack of Elite Belief in Britain: At root the Brexit fiasco reflects a London political and bureaucratic elite too many of whom simply do not believe in Britain. Some of them even want to break the UK into its four constituent ‘nations’ so that it could in time become part of a new ‘state’ called ‘Europe’. Too much of the London elite spend too much time lost in the intellectual desert that is universalism having abandoned the very idea of patriotism and the nation-state. This sets them at odds with huge swathes of the British people who remain stubbornly patriotic and creates a political gap that the likes of Nigel Farage (and Donald Trump in the US) are filling. If the elite do not actually believe in Britain how can they fashion a sense of the national interest other than some vague extension of their even vaguer notions of universalism and globalism?

In spite of my profound misgivings about the EU, its governance, its efficiency, its unworldliness, and its erosion of democratic oversight I eventually turned against Brexit. This was partly due to reasons of geopolitics, but also because I foresaw the almighty strategic and political mess Brexit is fast becoming.

Soft Brexit? Hard Brexit? No, we need quick Brexit, not lingering death Brexit, which is what the elite is now conspiring to craft. For the sake of Britain, the EU, and indeed NATO, it is vital that Brexit is resolved in a quick, orderly and friendly manner. A responsible elite would recognise this strategic truism, honour the vote that was taken on June 23rd as I have, and move to re-establish a new relationship with the EU outside of the institutions. In so doing they would pull together to realise the will of the people in what was a UK-wide vote and make it so.

Is that going to happen? No. Why? Brexit is precisely the big, complex, strategic, substantive process London has become useless at. And, because too much of the British political and bureaucratic elite is not only irresponsible…it is also crap!

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