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Why does the Establishment get it wrong?

no deal brexit
Written by Nick Busvine

How on earth have we managed to land ourselves in such a bind over Brexit?

Despite a reputation for handling negotiations with foreign partners competently and professionally, HMG’s failure to negotiate an even half-way decent withdrawal agreement three long years after the EU referendum has left ordinary people puzzled, frustrated, disillusioned and angry.  Unfortunately, this is not the first time that our governments have got things seriously wrong.  Is there a pattern?

No one doubts that negotiating with the EU is difficult.  Various experts, such as the UK’s former permanent representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, have regularly sought to remind us of this.  Whatever the challenges of taking on EU negotiators might be, an awful lot of people – me included – have found it impossible to believe that the UK side has managed this process effectively.  Worse, there is a suspicion that we have been deliberately landed with a terrible deal to persuade us that the whole idea of leaving in the first place was wrong. 

If Remainers hoped that a combination of a woeful deal and endless warnings about the ‘catastrophic’ consequences of no deal would scare Leavers into abandoning Brexit, they have been proved mistaken.  The continued frustration of a meaningful Brexit has led instead to a hardening of attitudes.  The Brexit logjam in parliament has had a galvanising effect on activists up and down the country (dare one call them democrats rather than populists?), who have taken it upon themselves to put their arguments directly to the people.  The meteoric rise of the Brexit party is a direct result of this, and the party’s success in the recent EU elections means that now it really is Brexit or bust for the Tories. 

From my local government perspective, there is a strong sense that voters have begun to lose faith and trust in the competence and integrity of the ruling class.  This really is an extraordinary state of affairs.  When trust is lost, anything is possible. 

In a blog entitled ‘What Price Democracy’ that I posted anonymously on this site in March, I described the almost uniform consensus among serving and former civil servants of my acquaintance (not necessarily a scientific sample) that the referendum was a misconceived exercise and the result was simply wrong.  The unselfconscious and effortless way highly intelligent, decent people have felt entitled to discount, ignore or actively undermine a legitimate democratic exercise has, for me, been shocking.  The endorsement by the two main parties of the referendum result in the 2017 election didn’t change this attitude.  Nor did the massive parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50.  Earnest promises from remain-minded MPs to ‘respect the result of the referendum’ or ‘deliver Brexit’ have not been matched by genuine action. 

Clearly, there has been – and continues to be – a deeply held view within our governing class that Brexit is a bad thing.  It is hard not to see this as a form of group think, a phenomenon that featured prominently during the various enquiries into the Iraq War.  The charge has to be that in certain circumstances entrenched sets of views across sections of the governing class can profoundly distort and undermine the democratic policy making process.  Attempts to dismiss democratic outcomes that run counter to received wisdom as ‘populist’ or worse merely serve to deepen the suspicion that the governing class considers itself the arbiter of right-thinking and unbound by the verdict of the electorate when it suits it.  The trouble is, if you don’t trust the people, why should you expect the people to trust you?      

During the last few weeks of my 29-year stint in the FCO, I sat as an observer on a number of occasions at the Iraq Enquiry.  The most fascinating day, for me, was one during which the enquiry took evidence on the legal justification for the war from former Attorney General Baron Goldsmith.  He had to work very hard indeed to explain how he had constructed a legal argument sufficiently credible to provide the necessary reassurance to our armed forces, who were poised to invade. 

Sitting in the Enquiry room listening to a succession of witnesses, it was impossible not to reflect on my own personal experience of the Iraq War.  I had the dubious privilege of observing at first hand the consequences of our decision to invade in 2003.  I served in Baghdad during the most violent phase of the conflict from May 2006 to August 2007.  In May 2007, we were told that Prime Minister Tony Blair would be paying us a farewell visit before Gordon Brown took over.  We were warned shortly before the PM’s arrival that the Iranians had got wind of his visit.  His security team told us he would be coming to the Embassy anyway.  His arrival was delayed – which was just as well.  At the exact time he had been due to arrive in the Embassy compound by helicopter, there was a massive explosion close to where I and other embassy staff were waiting to receive him.  Two of my team’s armoured vehicles were destroyed by a large rocket – and tea and cucumber sandwiches went flying.  It was lucky that no one was killed or injured.  To his credit the PM turned up some time later, looking somewhat distracted.  I couldn’t help thinking then that the attack would have come as a particularly stark reminder that bad decisions have consequences.

Blair decided to go to war because he thought it was essential that the UK should stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans post-9/11.  But, unlike the US, regime change on its own was not a sufficient casus belli.  It therefore became imperative to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein’s regime was in breach of UN resolutions on WMD.  The whole saga is recorded in millions of items of evidence submitted to the various enquiries into the war.  Illustrative in a Brexit context is the so-called ‘smoking gun’ memo of July 2002, prepared by a senior Downing Street aide and recording the then head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Richard Dearlove (now a prominent Brexiteer), as expressing the view following a visit to Washington that the President wanted to ‘remove Saddam Hussein, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.  But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.’ 

A prevailing view existed within policy making and intelligence circles on both sides of the Atlantic that Saddam had to have WMD.  This came to be characterised as group think.  The drum beat of events meant that prime ministerial policy and the assumptions that underpinned it got ahead of evidence collection and rigorous assessment.  The case for the existence of Iraqi WMD was, in the view of the MoD expert Dr. David Kelly, ‘sexed up’.  Those officials who went against the grain on WMD or the wisdom of the invasion plan on both sides of the Atlantic, not least Kelly himself, saw their careers hit the buffers, in Kelly’s case with tragic consequences.  Those who helped to fit the facts around the policy were promoted.  None of those directly involved has ever been held fully to account, though it is now generally accepted that the British people were taken to war in 2003 on a false prospectus.

Iraq is one of a number of examples over the past 30 odd years in which the British policy making establishment has either got major calls wrong – or come perilously close to getting it wrong.  Group think emerges as a common thread.  As I was preparing for deployment to Iraq in early 2006, I was told on a number of occasions that Iraq was no longer a good career move.  Afghanistan was where we were going to redeem ourselves.  My response was that we had rather a large mess to sort out in Iraq before we switched focus – so I went anyway.  I recall having a drink in the bar before heading off with a couple of old Afghan hands who were completely bemused at the belief that appeared to us to have gained traction at a senior level in Whitehall that sorting Afghanistan would, at least by comparison with Iraq, be relatively straightforward.  While those of us in the bar accepted that a switch in focus towards Afghanistan might represent an excuse to draw down in Iraq, we agreed that surely this was a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.  What were the higher ups thinking? 

Back in London, I spent the final couple of years of my FCO career looking mainly at the systemic risk posed to the UK by the global financial crisis.  As I recall, in 2009-11 there was no single external threat to UK interests that caused more disquiet than the risk of a full-blown financial crisis in the Eurozone.  Even though the UK was not part of the Eurozone, it was generally accepted that we would suffer severe collateral damage in the event of a Eurozone banking blow-up.  The limitations of the European currency project were there for anyone to see then.  They were pretty obvious even before the Euro came into existence.  They remain a threat in plain sight today. 

Prior to the Euro’s launch and despite the Black Wednesday ERM debacle, the pro-EU establishment led by Blair and supported by the Financial Times, the CBI et al. did their level best to sell us the economic benefits of Euro membership.  It is now broadly accepted that the Euro would have been a disaster for the UK.  The very same people who pushed the Euro argument in the 1990s are, of course, now passionate advocates of the economic advantages of remaining in the EU and proponents of what has become known as Project Fear. 

Is it any wonder that voters are becoming increasingly sceptical when essentially the same group of people from our governing class regularly present them with ‘facts’ on matters of fundamental national interest that subsequently prove to be either misleading or just plain wrong?    

The Remain camp have chosen to frame the Brexit debate almost exclusively around prosperity.  Before, during and after the 2016 referendum we were treated to a tidal wave of messaging on the economic benefits of the EU and the terrible fate that awaited us if we left – or even simply voted to leave.  The difficulty for the Remainers is that, thus far at least, their doom-laden economic predictions have failed to materialise.  This has only served to strengthen voter suspicions that the remain case for the EU has not been properly or honestly made.  People are again left wondering to what extent facts have been made to fit the policy. 

The truth of it is that the economic arguments in favour of membership of an EU committed to ever closer union are not as clear cut as the establishment have sought to make out.  The Greeks have been humiliated by their EU masters – and there is no obvious way of ever getting their debt down to sustainable levels.  The Italians are winding up for a major fight with Brussels over fiscal policy.  Unemployment in much of the EU remains chronically high, particularly in the Eurozone.  Significant parts of the banking system on the continent still look vulnerable. 

The relentless effort to dictate and shape the national Brexit conversation around prosperity means that other issues – not least democratic accountability and sovereignty – have been downplayed.  As I explained in my last blog, for me personally our democratic tradition is the core concern.  My time overseas gave me ample evidence of the truth of the dictum ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.  The ability of individual voters in the UK to hold Westminster to account easily exceeds that of European voters seeking to influence Brussels.  The secret of a successful and prosperous modern society is surely democratic freedom.  I cannot accept a trade-off that says give up a significant slice of democratic accountability in return for Remainer cake.  I believe – and I assume that right now the people of Hong Kong are also of the view – that democratic accountability and prosperity ultimately go hand in hand and are not mutually exclusive.

About the author

Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1982-2011. During his time in the FCO, he served overseas in Kuala Lumpur, Damascus, Maputo, Bogota and Baghdad. He is a founding partner of the Mayfair-based advisory firm Herminius. Nick is also a town councillor – and is currently the Mayor of Sevenoaks.