Foreign Office civil servants are an odd lot. They even have an eccentric way of speaking: understated, circumlocutory, a code to be deciphered, hints to be interpreted.
Traditional diplomacy is invaluable at the right time: the people of Syria would have suffered less had it taken priority over political posturing. But the alternative to Boris-speak is not FO-speak. When Sir Ivan Rogers, outgoing British ambassador to Brussels said in his resignation email, “Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission”, he means “We want more staff.”
Alas, these staff suffer from a lethal lack of humility – Sir Ivan goes on to praise the “unique combination of policy depth, expertise and coherence, message co-ordination and discipline, and the ability to negotiate with skill and determination” of the UK’s permanent representation to the EU, despite seemingly having zero career experience working in an actual business himself.
This is the “clever generalist” of Whitehall fame at its self-certain worst. You will find them behind all sorts of government failure, including your deficient broadband, as these amateurs attempt to compete in the professional era. They continue to reassure each other with mutual plaudits; a recent filmed gathering of six previous heads of the civil service took this to new levels with its allusions to thoroughbreds and F1 racing cars.
My guess is that Sir Ivan went because he knew his team was not going to win. If only our team had 14 players, then we’d be OK. Actually it’s a game for 11 – they just need to be a lot better.
The way Rogers’ departure is seen by Remainers and civil service colleagues as a serious setback to our negotiating ability – “wilful and total destruction of EU expertise” according to one former Permanent Secretary – suggests a worrying lack of confidence in our EU diplomatic corps.
Ivan Rogers huge loss. Can't understand wilful&total destruction of EU expertise, with Cunliffe,Ellam&Scholar also out of loop.#amateurism
— Nick Macpherson (@nickmacpherson2) January 3, 2017
It’s easy, however, to fall into a binary blame trap. For the politicians to avoid responsibility, they make sure the public think it’s the civil servants. And vice versa. Dave Penman, head of the union for top civil servants, is also its chief spin doctor, planting anti-politician stories as he goes. The civil service espouses all sorts of laudable aims – like speaking truth unto power. But today, like most parts of government, it’s only here for itself. Survival of the species.
I’m one of many to have tried and failed to reform the civil service in the past. I’ve come to realise that it cannot be reformed on its own, only as part of the whole system of politics, elections, democracy and government from the role of the House of Lords to the way policies are made.
But we are where we are on Brexit and the clock is ticking. What can be done? In the modern world of business complexity, relying on the Foreign Office and a handful of ministers to produce good trade deals is absurd. We need to bring real expertise to bear.
Where is this to be found? Well, you know all the lobbying of government departments and regulators that goes on to get the best deals for big business at our expense? This time, we need it for Britain. These companies and industries are what trade deals are about at the sharp end. They know what they need. They spend a lot of resource dealing with governments around the world. For once, their interests and ours are the same. And we have no choice.
As for who should step into Sir Ivan’s shoes, does he need to be replaced at all? Does it help us appointing another Permanent Representative to an organisation we are entering a sprawling set of negotiations to leave? Maybe it does. But a proper resource plan will show this.
Next: are we best served by a group of committed Brexiteers as our emissaries, or by people selected for their expertise? I hope the way my question is phrased answers that. The task now is not one of quasi-religious fervour, but of getting the right people in the right organisations with the right governance.
Here is a great opportunity for today’s government to use Brexit and this resignation to change “the way things are done round here” in Whitehall. What a Brexit benefit that would be.
And if Sir Ivan is right, and negotiations are going to drag on for 10 years, then all those involved better show some foresight and apply some serious thinking to the organisation we now need. Get planning, government.