Brexit and the danger of partisan divisions

Checkmate: if you have any doubts about black then you are judged by those who don’t as the white enemy.

The Australian lesson is that concentrating policy making power in political hands to “crash through” with a bold policy agenda might work for a while but ultimately becomes a zero-sum game, writes Geoff Kitney. Is Britain headed down the same road?

When leading Brexiter Michael Gove said in the 2016 referendum campaign that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, a shiver must have run down the collective spine of the British civil service.

Gove was responding in exasperation to questions about why, almost universally, economists – including those in the Treasury and the Bank of England – were warning of serious risks to the economy if there was a “yes” vote.

In making that statement, Gove was reflecting a change which had been steadily advancing in western politics for some time. This is the change to a more partisan world, a world in which, as President George W Bush, in his search for allies to join the US in the war to topple Saddam Hussein, declared “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists”.

Fast forward and the apprehensions that Gove’s comments must have caused in 2016 are surely now being felt in an existential way by those whose lives have been devoted to providing expert, impartial advice to governments not just in the UK but around the democratic world.

‘We could have a government at the highest level which will choose to operate on the basis of belief, rather than evidence and could seek to replace objective advisers with true believers.’  Nuffield College Professor Jim Gallagher

We now live in a deeply partisan world, a black and white world in which there are fewer and fewer shades of grey. If you have any doubts about black then you are judged by those who don’t as the white enemy.

So, for example, when Boris Johnson selected his new Cabinet (announced on February 13), the criteria for a place at the table was unquestioning loyalty to the Brexit cause and to the Johnson project.

But this did not just extend to the Cabinet. It extended to everyone with a job related to the Johnson project, with judgement passed by a single person – Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

If you were judged by Cummings not to be as utterly unquestioning as he expected you to be – most notably in the case of former chancellor Sajid Javid’s personal staff – you were out the door. The crime committed by Javid’s advisers was to doubt the wisdom of Cummings’ plans to let government spending and borrowing rip to supercharge the British economy – a post-Brexit economy – and, hopefully, to deliver for the large number of first-time Tory voters in economically depressed areas of Britain.

Sajid Javid recognised that he was being asked to become a political cipher and understandably handed in his resignation.

So, for the Johnson government, it is now all or nothing, go full-Brexit without reservations which, among other things, almost certainly means Britain is on the road to a “No-deal Brexit” by the end of the year.

We now live in a deeply partisan world, a black and white world in which there are fewer and fewer shades of grey. If you have any doubts about black then you are judged by those who don’t as the white enemy.

This brings to mind a famous quote from Paul Keating, a  former Australian Treasurer (the equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer), who threw all caution to the wind in a period of sweeping policy reform which transformed the economy. Keating had contempt for old fashioned ways of policy making and repeatedly enjoyed shocking the establishment. He described his approach as “downhill skiing, one ski, no poles”.

Interestingly, Keating was a highly partisan politician who literally despised his opponents and his critics. He hired loyalists and expected complete loyalty. His fiercely partisan persona shook the old establishment and I remember one very senior and distinguished Australian bureaucrat literally turning white when he learned that Keating was considering appointing a loyal senior staff member to become the next head of the Treasury. “Utterly shocking,” he said.

This bureaucrat had been a product of the long and distinguished history of the Australian Public Service which was modelled on the British Civil Service and steeped in the tradition of providing fearless, impartial expert advice to Ministers “without fear or favour”. In those days public service experts provided the main policy advice to governments and ministers decided which advice to accept and then instructed the bureaucracy to implement the policy changes.

Another senior bureaucrat at that time, secretary to the Treasury John Stone, contemptuously branded ministerial political operatives – who were increasingly taking over the central role in policy advice – as “meretricious players” whose considerations in giving advice were what was best for their political masters rather than what was best for the country. He warned that the consequence would be a diminished public service, less attractive to potentially bright new entrants and policy decisions which were judged for the short-term political impacts rather than for the long-term good of the country.

Three decades later, the Australian Public Service has arguably become impotent and ineffective. Short-term politics almost always trumps longer term policy objectives.

Partisanship has paralysed Australia’s ability to deal with arguably the government’s most important policy challenge – agreeing on how to deal with the impacts of climate change. A horrific summer of raging bushfires which have inflicted death, destruction and huge costs on the Australian economy has highlighted the problem.

The Australian lesson is that concentrating policy making power in political hands to “crash through” with a bold policy agenda might work for a while but ultimately becomes a zero-sum game.

Is Britain headed down the same road?

It is obvious that there have been consequences for the civil service from the Brexit partisan divide.

Whitehall bureaucrats have tended to come to be seen as obstructers rather than enablers of the government’s policy on Brexit. Civil servants have faced intense and sometimes ugly criticism from partisans over their role in the long and painful battle for the British government to secure a withdrawal agreement with the European Union. Bureaucrats advising on the obstacles to Brexit were seen as Remainers, accused of deliberately trying to prevent the UK leaving the EU. They were lumped with High Court judges and others as “enemies of the people”.

Nuffield College Professor Jim Gallagher, a former senior civil servant who worked for a time in the Downing Street policy units under prime ministers Blair and Brown, has written about the challenges facing civil servants when faced with a highly partisan government.

He says the risk the UK government system now faces is that, at least for a period, “we could have a government at the highest level which will choose to operate on the basis of belief, rather than evidence and could seek to replace objective advisers with true believers”.

“Reality would likely catch up with such a government swiftly, maybe when assessments of the implications of a no deal Brexit turn out to have been right after all. But a lot of damage might have been done in the meantime,” he said in a recent commentary, published on the UK In A Changing Europe website.

Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle and the prospect now of economic and other vital policy being directed by an immensely powerful, driven political operative in the Prime Minister’s office has confirmed that the UK is now plunging into a period in which partisan loyalty – which was at the heart of the Brexit project – will override all other considerations in government.

It may not end well.

 


kitney-vb1

Headline image credit: carlo fornitano/Shutterstock.com

 

 

Be the first to comment on "Brexit and the danger of partisan divisions"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*