Victims of a no-deal Brexit: the civil service?

When London’s Sunday Times splashed Government contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit – five pages of fearsome consequences – the public response was surprisingly tepid. That they appear to have been prepared under the previous administration might lessen the scare factor. But this sort of material seems to be losing its power to shock, surprise – and convince.  Partisans of both sides mine the data to support their views.  But it may be useful in another way.

To recap, the plans were essentially reported as a long list of things that could go wrong, or might / might not be done, for example:

  • disrupted fuel supplies;
  • near-halving of port movements;
  • failure to distribute medical supplies;
  • higher prices for fresh food;
  • more smuggling;
  • higher social care costs (yes I was surprised too – at a guess this means shortages of cleaners and carers); and
  • civil disorder in the UK and Ireland.

But some essential context was missing.

The first thing is a recognition that trade functions through free exchange.  Private businesses make a living by overcoming obstacles to meet peoples’ needs. Changes in price serve to prioritise and ration the distribution of goods and services.  Government provides the framework within which these activities take place – it does not usually bring these needs into existence or satisfy them.  The private sector is built to respond and it usually does a pretty good job when it’s working in conjunction with co-operative government.

Secondly, it follows that an important task – perhaps the principal task – of civil servants is to avoid stuffing up the private sector response.  This involves making sure that all the rules and regulations, like bio-security, sourcing or social care recruiting, designed for a different situation are flexible enough or can be temporarily waived and ensuring that the ‘essential’ services provided by government, like border checks, do not become an end in themselves, obstructing the response.

Thirdly, civil servants need to identify damaging actions and omissions which can be inflicted by hostile actors – and taking appropriate precautions to the extent these are possible. There is little doubt that the French authorities could drastically choke the flow of traffic through the channel tunnel on Brexit day – indeed they could probably do it tomorrow.  So one hopes that the contingency plans which already exist for areas like fuel and food distribution, medical supplies, etc have been revised and tested.

But you must also ask yourself, how difficult do the Europeans want the future relationship to be?  They ought to be clear that any failure by a European body to keep normal traffic flowing will be understood as a deliberate and hostile decision.  The damage to the EU’s image may be greater than the harm inflicted on the average Briton.  The argument ‘Boris made us do it’ just doesn’t wash, when it’s your own choice.  The choice becomes harder when you think that a hostile measure is likely to boost support for Boris Johnson, his policies and for a more remote relationship between the EU and UK.

The principal defect of these contingency plans – at any rate as they have been reported – is their lack of penetration and imagination.  They come across as an attempt to distance the civil service not just from the policy (which would be understandable) but from responsibility for its successful execution.  The lack of can-do is perhaps forgivable – but not the failure to be heard, saying clearly ‘this is our responsibility and these are the things we can, and cannot, do’.

The public seems to be in a less fearful state of mind.  If the consequences of no-deal are less troublesome than anticipated, the civil service will be in a difficult position.  It may well be time for a generational change.  Luckily there is always an ambitious class of junior officials on the make.  If you are negotiating with British civil servants, be polite to the youngsters; they could be in charge sooner than you think.

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