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 negotiating style of the UK government.
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 their options, their failure to understand the other side’s tactics and their pathetic attempts to respond are all too predictable.
I’ve spent hours working and dealing with civil servants and ministers in the past, and have even witnessed their approaches to negotiation, so it came as no surprise to me 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, while having someone like Trump at the helm might 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, at her 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 that most people in positions of influence are remainers, and so they want it to fail. Perhaps this is true, but it is more likely that Brexit was always doomed to fail because of the inherent ineptitude in ‘the system’s’ personnel.
There are certain behaviours performed by civil servants that I have witnessed over the years which seem to chime with our current predicament. Firstly, and most importantly, is their blatant lack of concern.
The various governmental bodies I have encountered consistently portrayed a shocking disregard for the role of their department, the taxpaying public, good work, and just about 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. Sadly, like so many clichés, they turned out to be true.
Attending what I thought 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 principle that leads to the furious digging up of roads in spring time as councils rush to ensure the ampleness of their coffers next year. Nothing weird there you’d think.
Commercial companies do it all the time; the crucial difference being that, like most government bodies, they have no meaningful or measurable targets. The ways in which they lob our money around is grotesquely irresponsible, and often without ramifications. What I found most shocking that day was the glee they took in doing it, and the overt smugness they displayed 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 online development. As she limply greeted me, she was kind enough to reveal that she didn’t use the Internet or have a connection at home. Or a mobile. Which she called, ‘a mobile telephone’.
“It’s a nasty little merry-go-round of dead-eyed jealous little drones.”
One of my favourite encounters happened 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, sported lovely side partings above sneering smiles. 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 number of people lacking in ambition and imagination, and yet, boasts a huge desire to dictate and an inflated sense of self. You know, psychopaths.
Most departments are awash with those who have been institutionalised for over 20 years, but if a big fat final salary pension remains on the horizon, they are happy to do almost anything to ensure that parapets remain head free.
The other, all-important consideration is that many civil service workers 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 unnecessarily complexify systems and processes so that the only people that can decode them are the same blank-faced goons who have stuck around for 20 years. They spout jargon and acronyms, boasting 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 a 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.