Brexit is killing many myths, but its chief victim is the belief that Britain is not an absurd country. The British establishment believed in our innate common sense, as did admiring foreigners.
Weirdly, the supposedly cynical British public still does. Voters damn politicians, but assume they will somehow find a way through. I doubt their confidence will last and they will soon see our new United Kingdom of Absurdistan for what it is: a land where civil servants send military advisers into government departments, as if the mandarins were planning a coup, or draw up emergency measures to lift the Queen fall-of-Saigon style from Buckingham Palace or stockpile medicines as if we were at war. We are at war in a sense, only Brexit is a war the British have declared on themselves and still do not realise they are fighting.
The British stiff upper lip cannot explain the absence of fear: if it ever existed, it wilted long ago. Rather, the deep complacency of British and in particular English life, which sleeps soundly beneath all the noise of the news cycle, still makes the average citizen believe it can’t happen here. The only major European country to escape both communism and fascism, or occupation by the armies of Hitler or Stalin, has an ingrained bias against taking the possibility of disaster seriously. We’ve always managed before, previous alarms have turned out to be false, are the default responses of a country that has yet to learn that the past does not always determine the future.
The secrecy imposed on the civil service is the second reason why, if trouble comes, it will appear to come from nowhere. The truth is that we have a hidden government, thinking the unthinkable in secret, not as an academic parlour game in which an idea is reduced to absurdity for intellectual pleasure, but as a means of stopping voters realising the scale of the trouble we may be facing. Our shadow administration could take £2bn of public money and is organised in 320 “DExEU workstreams”, if I may inflict Whitehall’s barbarous jargon on you.
Civil servants are not in despair. Like soldiers desperate to fight, or journalists determined to get their name on the big story, they want to be involved. “It’s the greatest challenge of their careers,” Dave Penman, from the FDA, the trade union for civil servants, told me. Of course they want to be part of it. Names will be made, careers enhanced, gongs won. Who wants to sit in the education department worrying about children when the great Brexit game is afoot?
However much they enjoy it, they must know they can’t win it. Contrary to the propagandists of left and right, civil servants obey orders. But our collapsing political system can no more provide the civil service with a clear direction than it can tell the country where it will be by the summer. Are they meant to be preparing for no deal, May’s deal, the Norway deal or no Brexit? There was a moment of comic bathos when Philip Rycroft, permanent secretary, Department for Exiting the European Union (that’s DExEU, the one with all the “workstreams”) told MPs his civil servants “need to get their head around what the realities are of the world we are in now, what the negotiating objectives and negotiating realities are and how to translate the outcome of the negotiations – whatever that is”.
“Whatever that is…” I can think of no better way of describing Britain’s absurdity. “Brexit means Brexit – whatever that is.” “We are delivering the will of the people – whatever that is.” “The EU must give us a new withdrawal agreement – whatever that is.” Whatever that is, it is not competent public administration, let alone one that can cope with a Britain engaging in a wanton act of destruction.
The Irish border between County Monaghan and County Armagh. Photograph: Paul Mcerlane/EPA
Despite the secrecy, we know that Britain is nowhere near building and policing effective borders – so much for “taking back control”, whatever that is. We know there may be “putrefying piles of rubbish”, so there will no “clean break” – whatever that is.
But overall we know far less than we have a right to know. To date, criticism of the administrative response has come from a right whose lack of concern for its fellow citizens borders on the sociopathic. Until we leave, it must pretend that warnings about the cost of Brexit on jobs, the public services and the tax take are lies spread by “politically influenced” civil servants fiddling with the figures, as Jacob Rees-Mogg said of Treasury forecasts of economic decline. The right must fight as hard as it can until 29 March and preserve the illusion that we can topple over the cliff edge and land without so much as a bruise. When we’re out, the story will change and the right will need the civil service in the stab-in-the-back myth it is developing to protect itself from public anger. Brexit will have failed, it will say, not because it was national mistake but because it was betrayed by the Whitehall establishment that wanted us to remain in the EU all along.
If a word of this were true, Remainer civil servants would be refusing to work on Brexit. The most principled would resign, saying they did not enter public service to do their country harm. In fact, volunteers are flocking to work on Brexit and staff numbers have risen to a number not seen since the Second World War (so much for the right’s dream of a deregulated Brexit Britain – whatever that was).
As the Institute for Government, MPs and MEPs warn, the genuine scandal has nothing to do with the fantasy biases of the civil service and everything to do with secrecy. Businesses don’t know what to expect from government and what they need to do. Neither does the supposedly sovereign people in whose name Brexit is being delivered. Whatever Brexit is, they will be left in ignorance until it is too late to do anything about it.