In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s been much consternation and mouth frothing fury at this whole Brexit thing, but there has been one aspect that has garnered criticism from all sides since Article 50 was triggered, the UK Government’s negotiating style.
But to anyone who has worked with civil servants, this apparent ineptitude will come as no surprise. The fact that they took so long to weigh up options, fail to understand the other side’s tactics and respond so pathetically to them is all too predictable.
I’ve spent hours working and dealing with civil servants and ministers in the past and have even been present to witness their approach to negotiations, and so it came as no surprise as these suited buffoons flail about in public school haircuts while the EU simply stand there with a satisfied half grin on their continental faces.
The fact is that, while having someone like Trump at the helm might in general be a horrific thought for some, it would have at least been fun to see him ruffle the EU’s feathers in a sweaty conference room in Brussels.
Instead, we’re left with the Maybot — a paving slab civil servant made good who is happiest when she’s shuffling papers from one side of her desk to the other — blink with fear as she realises she hasn’t got a clue what to do.
It’s been suggested that the reason Brexit is failing is because virtually everyone in any position of influence is a Remainer and they want it to fail. This is possibly true, but perhaps more important is that it was always doomed to fail because of the inherent ineptitude in ‘the system’s’ personnel.
There are a few factors I have witnessed in civil servant’s behaviour over the years that seem to chime with our current predicament, firstly, and most importantly, is the fact that they don’t care.
The various governmental types I came into contact constantly portrayed a shocking disregard for their department’s role, the tax paying public, good work, in fact anything other than asinine procedural devotion and underhand job justification.
I recall a meeting that at once confirmed many of the clichés I was reluctant to believe existed but sadly, like so many clichés, they turned out to be true.
Attending what I thought was to be a discussion on a certain initiative, I soon realised it was an exercise in how to spend the existing budget before the end of the year. It’s the same principal that leads to the roads being dug up furiously in March and April as councils rush to ensure they will receive the same amount in their coffers next year. Nothing weird there you’d think.
Commercial companies do it all the time; the difference is however that, because like most government bodies they have no meaningful or measureable targets, and the way in which they lob the money (our money) around is grotesquely irresponsible, and without ramifications.
What I found most shocking, was the glee they took in doing it, and the overt hilarity they put on show in the knowledge of what was happening.
In another job I met someone who would be my ‘main stakeholder’ (whatever the holy balls that means) on a government backed project regarding a large website development. As she limply greeted me she was kind enough to reveal that she didn’t use the Internet and in fact, didn’t have a connection at home. Or a mobile. Which she called, ‘a mobile telephone’.
One of my favourite encounters though, was during a visit to Manchester where we were to discuss that great political mirage, The Northern Powerhouse. When I met the two civil servants who were leading this particular initiative, they didn’t disappoint. Clad in pin striped suits, they spoke with cut glass Old Etonian accents, a lovely side parting above a sneering smile, and when I enquired where they were based, they of course replied, “Westminster”. Yeah, that’ll go down well. I gave them a secret and clever nickname that day; Punch in the Face One, and Punch in the Face Two.
The civil service seems to attract a disproportionate amount of people with zero ambition, no creativity or imagination and yet, a huge desire to order people around and an inflated sense of self. You know, psychopaths.
Most departments are awash with people who have been institutionalised over 20 years, and now with a big fat final salary pension on the horizon, are happy to do almost anything to ensure boats aren’t rocked, and parapets remain head free.
The other, all-important consideration is that many people in the civil service couldn’t get a job anywhere else. Nowhere else works like that, other than perhaps, a charity. For newcomers the feeling that you’ve walked into a scene from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil must be common.
It’s a nasty little merry-go-round of dead-eyed, jealous little drones that wilfully keep systems and processes unnecessarily complex so that the only people that can decode them are the same blank-faced goons who have stuck around for 20 years and learnt it. They spout jargon, acronyms and show elongated and indecipherable process diagrams in the hope that you will leave or simply acquiesce and join them in their dreary little cult.
I have some sympathy for libertarians when you see how bad the state is run, and what kind of people it can attract.
But rather than do away with the whole thing, maybe employ some people who have experienced the other side of the table once or twice. Or perhaps some sort of rotation system for the public, like national service? Having had the misfortune of sitting opposite a mean faced civil servant or two; I think a little humility or uncertainty in their job prospects might go a long way.
As Billy Connolly said, “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever becoming one.”
The same should apply to civil servants.