We are creatures of habit – every one of us. When given a choice between the predicable and the speculative, we lean toward the familiar.
Part of it is ingrained in our nature. Despite our rhetoric where we congratulate the bold and the innovative, the so-called ‘risk takers’, we are generally risk adverse ourselves. In 2015, spending on insurance premiums (direct gross premiums) among OECD countries represented fully 8.8 percent of GDP.[i] In other words, within the grouping of the world’s most developed economies, almost nine percent of total economic output is earmarked for paying for a hedge against bad and unexpected things happening.
We are hard wired to not like unpredictability – from what we put in our morning coffee, to the route we commute to work, to the television shows we watch, or the way we prefer our food to be cooked. Because change – by definition – represents a break with the familiar and the predictable, we tend to shy away from it as well.
Those who supported the ‘In’ campaign during the Brexit referendum argued about the dangers and dislocations of change, and yet the change they warned about – the leap into the unknown – was the status quo from the Norman Conquest of 1066 to 1973. It was a Britain that exercised full sovereignty over its own affairs up until less than five decades ago.
The kind of arguments that took place during the EU Referendum seem odd in the context of a relationship where an independent nation-state debates the nature of its authority vis a vis an external body, and where the status quo position is that the external body hold a veto over specific basic functions of statecraft. Implicit in the position is the notion that it is the European Union, and not the United Kingdom, that exercises legitimacy in certain instances – a hybrid independent / interdependent argument, or more specifically a ‘situationally dependent’ state. This should not be confused with a simple bilateral or multilateral treaty where Country A agrees to fulfill its obligations to its fellow signatories. To listen to the debate, a person with no previous knowledge or preconception could be forgiven for believing that those campaigning to stay in the European Union where somehow the proud nationalists that were fighting to preserve the nation!
In the 1950’s, American scholar Ernst Haas developed the theory of ‘neofunctionalism’, which held that political legitimacy was closely related to the ‘functions’ of government (such as the provision of social services, administration of legal systems, etc.). To achieve a shift in public loyalty, a shift in public patronage was a prerequisite. As Ben Rosamond described it:
“Political integration is the process whereby political actors in several distinct national settings are persuaded to shift their loyalties, expectations and political activities to a new center, whose institutions possess or demand jurisdiction over pre-existing national states. The end result is a new political community, superimposed over the pre-existing ones.”[ii]
When one looks at the evolution of the European Union, from its earliest incarnation as the European Coal and Steel Community, to the present and the existence of a bureaucracy, legal system, central bank and currency, as well as an elected Parliament, not to mention the more symbolic affectations – including a flag, and an anthem – it is clear to see that the project to build ‘an ever closer union’ has followed a defined and purposeful path.
Progress along this path, however, depends upon popular support, and the incremental nature of the development reflects this. Logically, those closest to the project – the public servants tasked with implementing the measures – would figure among the more supportive in society.
During the UK Referendum on the European Union, there was much discussion on the attitude of the broader public service. More specifically, it was often suggested that the consensus among leaders in the civil service was decidedly pro-European, and that this preference was reflected in the advice and strategies offered to political leaders. The introduction of ‘purdah’ – a pre-election period of institutional neutrality, analogous to the concept of ‘lame duck’ in Canada and the US – was seen as instrumental to the outcome of the referendum.[iii] That the ability (or inability) of the professional civil service to play a role in a political campaign is seen as crucial to its eventual result only reinforces this view.
In an August 2, 2016 article at Politico.eu, titled “Brexit in the hands of the unbelievers”, Robert Colvile wrote:
“When voters in the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union, Britain’s civil servants reacted with shock and disbelief. This was no surprise. After all, as highly educated, affluent technocrats, they pretty much check off every stereotype of a Remain supporter. Reality is slowly setting in. As ministers head off on their summer holidays, staff in Whitehall are starting to accept that the next portion of their careers will be dominated by the implementation of a decision with which they thoroughly disagreed.”[iv]
The article goes on to explain that “many within the Foreign Office unit that deals with the technicalities of EU membership — the European Union Division Internal — are alarmed at the thought of being hived off to (a) new body. These are generally staff from domestic departments who have been brought over to the Foreign Office because of their in-depth policy expertise — but then often move on to pursue a diplomatic career elsewhere within the Foreign Office. That door has been shut in their face.”[v]
Quoting Jill Rutter, program director at the Institute for Government:
“Some departments will be very unaffected by Brexit…But some will be profoundly affected. At my old department, Defra [which covers the environment and the countryside], all its policy agenda is affected. For example, it currently does very little legislation of its own — it’s all about bringing through EU directives.”[vi]
In August of 2017, New Statesman magazine began a series of columns billed as from “The Secret Civil Servant”, which are billed as originating from an “anonymous insider reports from the frontline of the EU negotiations.”[vii] The tone and tenor of the first article, titled “In Brexit negotiations, there is such a thing as a stupid question”, sets it as clearly a piece of topical humour, lampooning the progress of the talks by highlighting some of the more admittedly surreal moments, such as the debate over whether or not personalized business cards for each of the participants was a prerequisite for talks – an anecdote that had been covered by other media. The signoff of this particular submission read as follows:
“The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because David Davis probably won’t find any of this funny.”[viii]
Whether or not this was actually penned by a British functionary is a dubious matter. What was not an anonymous piece of satire, however, was the letter issued by Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK ambassador to the European Union, to staff upon his resignation in January of 2017:
“My own view remains as it has always been. We do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit… Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission or in the Council…Senior ministers, who will decide on our positions, issue by issue, also need from you detailed, unvarnished – even where this is uncomfortable – and nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27…Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree…I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power. I hope that you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them.”[ix]
In and of itself, the text of the letter – literally read – is not objectionable per se. It does, however, point to a view that the public service’s real task is not to support and assist, but to enlighten, dissuade and otherwise guide.
In this light, consider the situation of a young British civil servant in early 2016 – before the referendum vote. They will have attended schools that have received some funding from the European Union, as well as from a national government that has promoted EU legitimacy. They may, or may not, have participated in the Erasmus Scholarship program. They may have studied in a European school regardless. They may have participated in research partially funded by the EU through one mechanism or another. They would have entered the British public service, and determined a career path that would afford them opportunities and advancement. They would have quickly understood that an increasing number of functions beyond international trade were being coordinated from Brussels. They would have seen great opportunity for personal advancement in securing a posting with a department or agency of the EU, and would see the benefit of promoting Europe – both to prove their bona fides as well as ensuring that the EU, and its constituent agencies, offered the opportunities they sought.
Imagine now that this entire plan hinged on the outcome of a single ‘yes/no’ vote, where one side or another was reported to be in the lead on any given day. You do not lead government, but you advise it. You do not make policy, but you define the parameters of the debate, and you control the information used to make said policy. What do you do?
The above example suggests premeditation, and while there may be some element of old fashioned self-interest afoot, we must also appreciate the reality that in most cases as these, one may not be able to discern the difference between self-interest and the public good. As with this example, if you have spent your entire life being taught or advised that something is both inevitable and good, you are likely to internalize those values and ethics. You begin to identify with them personally. To those on the other side, what you are doing may seem like manipulation, but you might very well consider it to be an act of loyalty for the greater good.
The results of the Brexit vote may have changed the policy of the British government overnight, but it did not change a broader civil service that had not negotiated a trade treaty in four decades, that was told that the EU was the future, and spent much of its time implementing EU directives to fit the British context.
The public services of a nation are staffed by bright, intelligent and conscientious individuals chosen for those very attributes to work in the national interest. They should be, by definition, masters of change – able to navigate shifting conditions and circumstances, always keeping in mind their commitment to the country. The very fact that a single referendum vote has caused such an existential crisis and need for self-examination among those ranks is a clear indication that many of them, like the broader cognoscenti, have been found wanting.
Dreams die hard, and when dramatic change occurs the default is to deny that change. The current controversy over Britain’s stance in Brexit negotiations points to this ‘cognitive intransigence.’ The question to be answered is whether those feelings and sentiments can reconcile themselves to the realities that the referendum result brought to bear.
[i] “Insurance spending – Total, % of GDP, 2000 – 2015,” OECD Data, https://data.oecd.org/insurance/insurance-spending.htm, accessed 2017 December 22
[ii] Rosamond, Ben, “The uniting of Europe and the foundation of EU studies: Revisiting the Neofunctionalism of Ernst B. Haas,” Journal of European Public Policy 12:2 April 2005: p.241
[iii] Goodman, Paul, “Five people who made the Brexit vote happen: 4) Steve Baker,” Conservative Home, 2016 December 22, https://www.conservativehome.com/parliament/2016/12/five-people-who-made-the-brexit-vote-happen-4-steve-baker.html
[iv] Colvile, Robert, “Brexit in the hands of the unbelievers,” in Politico. eu, 2016 August 2, http://www.politico.eu/article/brexit-in-the-hands-of-the-unbelievers-eu-referendum-civil-servants-remain
[vii] Anonymous, “The Secret Civil Servant: In Brexit negotiations, there is such a thing as a stupid question,” New Statesman, 2017 August 7 http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/brexit/2017/08/secret-civil-servant-brexit-negotiations-there-such-thing-stupid-question
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