Thursday, 5 January 2017

Let's just appoint a few flat-earthers

I’m not sure that the now former UK Ambassador to the EU is as entirely blameless as some have painted him: the route by which his advice to the Government about the length of time it would take to negotiate Brexit (as well as his subsequent resignation e-mail) reached the media has yet to be fully explained.  It’s entirely proper for diplomats to provide their best and most honest advice to governments; it’s rather less normal to make that advice public.
But there is another norm here as well - it has long been accepted (perhaps it’s one of those strange ‘British values’ that they keep telling us about) that senior civil servants are appointed for their ability to represent the government of the day impartially, and not on the basis of their political views.  I’ve noted before that I can see an argument for taking a different approach to the appointment of ambassadors, where an ability to represent accurately and sincerely the views of the government of the day is an important attribute.  If the Brexiteers were to start making that argument in a general sense, then I’d have some sympathy with their viewpoint. 
They’re not doing that, though; they are selecting one particular job and demanding that the person appointed must share their simplistic world view.  I suppose that dealing with matters on a case-by-case basis rather than developing a general policy is standard UK practice, but it doesn’t make for consistency or clarity.  And given the nature of the demands being expressed by some, it doesn’t make for getting the best people into the jobs either. 
John Redwood – ah, there’s a name that brings back memories – argued yesterday (just before the new appointee was named) that the new ambassador should be someone who thinks that Brexit is ‘straightforward’.  Now, there do seem to be a lot of those to choose from, but given the complexities already identified, I wouldn’t want to put anyone with such a simplistic viewpoint anywhere near the negotiations, purely on the pragmatic basis that they’re unlikely to understand most of what’s being discussed.
The Brexiteers’ approach to negotiation seems to be falling increasingly into the traditional British way of dealing with foreigners – speak to them slowly and loudly until they do what we want.  The strange thing, to me, is that they seriously seem to believe that it will work.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

The political British have a problem with educated and experienced advisers. They are much happier with a "good chap" who will be a safe pair of hands and apply"common sense". Similarly an unwritten Constitution" is much to be preferred to a written one. The reason is the same - noone will rock the political boat.
It is quite understandable for politicians to have one view, while the expert will defend his informed and expert view.
As you say, take Ambassadors. In fact, until 2006 according to Matthew Parris in "Parting Shots" describes the custom (unwritten of course) of a senior diplomat, on leaving post, writing a candid dispatch. It was regarded as a good thing in for long-term policy, if uncomfortable in the short term.2006 - practice ended. 2016 - I can quite understand Sir Ivan Rogers wanting to leak his "Parting Shot". He had something he wanted to say and which many wanted to hear. The issue in question can by of the highest importance - as here.
Lawyers have the same problem. Take the office of UK Attorney-General. Until about 2006, the (unwritten) rule was that the AG's first responsibility was to the law,and the wider public, not merely to politicians. But then Blair broke Lord Goldsmith AG on the central issue, whether the war against Iraq was legal. And would not release his Advice, even though it was public property. Of course we got the Advice in due course, and quite right too
And Wales? The Welsh AG is the Counsel-General. Originally he was appointed as the UK AG But you can guess what happened. Yes, he changed and became the legal adviser of the Welsh Government, not (loosely) the legal adviser to the Welsh People. When did this happen? Yep. What was it about 2006?