Opinion: Brexit has highlighted an unprecedented level of self-imposed chaos and ineptitude from British cabinet ministers and civil servants
Since British voters voted for the UK to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum, discussions about Britain’s future relationship with the wider world have been tinged with imperial nostalgia. This sense of Britain’s historical decline, which underpinned much of the feeling for the leave vote itself, is often understood in terms of economic stagnation or geo-political rebalancing, but what about a decline of basic governing competence?
As Britain stands on the precipice of the biggest readjustment in its international relations since the post-war disintegration of the British Empire, there seems to be an unprecedented level of self-imposed chaos and ineptitude from cabinet ministers and the civil service.
Whilst it is hard to summarise a single model of governance from the British Empire, due to the variety of colonial situations, imperial rule was often contingent on ruthless, often cruel, pragmatism in London and a "born to rule" mentality inculcated amongst the British elites who acted as colonial governors. In the post-colonial era, the old imperial arrogance is no longer supported by ruthless pragmatism, but by blundering incompetence.
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The sense of chaos and ineptitude that have defined Brexit is demonstrated by the events of the past week. The Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, resigned in protest at the EU Withdrawal Agreement that he was responsible for negotiating. Despite the spin of the hard-Brexiteers that Raab has been undermined by hardcore Remain supporters, the resignation has been widely regarded, both in Britain and abroad, as an indication of the chaos at the heart of the British Government.
But there’s a longer story here. Since Brexit negotiations began, several cabinet members have exhibited surprising ignorance of basic information and incompetence in managing their briefs. Starting with Ireland, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, recently set twitter ablaze when she confessed that she did not know people in Northern Ireland voted along "constitutional lines" before she took the job.
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Whilst her honesty must be acknowledged, many observers on social media pointed out that Bradley’s admission raised the question of why she was considered suitable for the role in the first place given her lack of knowledge. Moreover, the irreconcilable divides over how to solve the Irish border reflects both the difficulty of the negotiation itself and that few in government had anticipated the border issue being so problematic.
Similarly, the former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, astounded the Brexit Select Committee in 2017 when he admitted that there had be no impact assessment on the impact of the UK leaving the customs union before the decision to leave was taken. Following Davis’ criticism of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, he was branded a "terrible" Brexit secretary who "hardly bothered to go to Brussels" during his time in the post by former civil servant Sir Simon Fraser.
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Davis’ cavalier mentality has been matched by Liam Fox’s suggestion that the Brexit deal would be the "easiest thing in human history". The assumption that such a significant diplomatic and economic process should be ‘easy’ reflects colonial-era assumptions about how diplomacy works.
Decades of post-imperial decline without a change in tone means Britain’s diplomatic messaging is dangerously inept. In 2017, the then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, caused offence in Myanmar when he was filmed reciting the colonial poetry of Rudyard Kipling whilst on a diplomatic visit. This lack of cultural sensitivity is reflected in a more technical sense with basic translation errors in correspondence with EU languages.
On an imperial level, London was able to manage a vast empire that governed around one-fifth of the world’s population with just 4,000 civil servants. For much of the 19th century, this figure was much lower. Notably, this was not to the benefit of the governed. If we take the example of India, the colonial state was often ineffective in providing for the very poorest and wilfully neglectful with famines causing devastating loss of life right up to the Bengal Famine in 1943. As the Indian nationalist Jawaharlal Nehru quipped, the Indian Civil Service was "neither Indian, nor Civil, nor a Service".
At a time when Britain needs pragmatism, competence and expertise more than ever, these traits seem to be in short supply
However, Nehru’s valid criticisms do not change the fact that by the point of Indian independence in 1947, just 1,000 civil servants governed more than 300 million people. Callous neglect aside, the Indian civil service effectively maintained order and extracted wealth for the benefit of the British Empire.
Today, the size of UK’s civil service is its lowest since the second World War. The reduced ability of the state to administer the vast changes associated with Brexit will have real world implications for the EU citizens already in the UK. For example, earlier this year, the Home Office was embarrassingly forced to admit that the smartphone app to allow people to apply for "settled status" did not work on iPhones .
Taken alongside the Windrush scandal, in the aftermath of which it is still unclear how many people have been wrongly threatened with deportation and for which Theresa May is directly responsible, the incompetence of the Home Office could have very serious implications for EU citizens in the UK.
Regardless of your support or opposition to Brexit it is hard to characterise the UK government’s handling of this EU withdrawal as anything other than a chaotic, divisive, disorganised fudge. At a time when Britain needs pragmatism, competence and expertise more than ever, these traits seem to be in short supply.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ