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Politics: a broken machine

2020-07-06 08:21:39

When the "silly season" comes early and high up in the headlines is the prime minister with the clap, the temptation is to book a prolonged holiday and come back when normal service has been resumed if indeed that is ever likely to happen.

Pete, on the other hand, has been reading the runes about Scotland, giving early warning of troubles to come, although one has to say that as long as Sturgeon is around, there will always be trouble - that's the woman's middle name.

Nevertheless, there is certainly a thesis to consider, where a newly-independent Scotland could sign up to an association agreement with the EU, committing to full regulatory alignment and thereby detaching itself from the orbit of its English neighbour.

However, I suspect that, when confronted with the hard reality, Sturgeon might find having to buy back into the Common Fisheries Policy is too big a leap, as her fishermen still have some political clout north of the border.

Whatever the protestations of the EU as to their good intentions, Scotland might find that the riches of Scottish waters are too much of a temptation for the "colleagues" to resist. Deep in the bowels of the Berlaymont, there might already be a plan on how to reintegrate Scottish fishing into the existing CFP.

Interestingly, one tends to find the "colleagues" better-prepared than one might imagine. It is a testament of faith that, in 1970 when the UK started its accession negotiations to join the EEC, the French rapidly worked up a fisheries policy as a way of securing access to UK waters.

Delving into the archives, though, yields interesting results. As early as June 1966 the Commission had published as COM (66) 250 final, a "Report on the situation of the fishing sector in the Member States of the EEC and the basic principles for a common policy".

English wasn't a Community language at that time, so the only published copy (that I can find) is in French, but the 512-page length tells you they weren't messing. No one puts that amount of effort into policy formulation unless they are very, very serious.

An independent Scotland, though, might have a little difficulty standing up to the EU and, without a deal, there are the costs of policing their waters to consider. Meeting them might be difficult without help from a Royal Navy that is run from the Admiralty in London.

Talk of independence from Scotland may also be premature given the economic damage occasioned by Covid-19. For a while at least, Sturgeon may need more help from British taxpayers than she is willing to admit.

Despite that, one has to accept that when it comes to Brexit, Scotland is a huge policy vacuum. We might consider sending a Legion up there to find out what the odds are, but historical precedents are not good. We might never get it back. However, if Johnson is still keen on infrastructure projects, then there are probably some votes in rebuilding Hadrian's Wall.

Entertaining though that might be, the real issue is not so much Scotland as the Brexit policy as a whole. That in itself is a massive policy vacuum, with question marks in virtually every sphere of activity.

Here, it is not just trade and border administration where detail is lacking. Key policies such as agriculture, regional policy and state aid plus many more which currently reside within the domain of the EU have not seen any significant policy activity from the British government, in the context where White Papers should be pouring off the presses.

The lack of activity may in part be the result of the Covid-19 epidemic, which has happened at just the wrong time. The lockdown measures have had a dampening effect on the general Brexit debate, and have suppressed the process of policy-making, not least because so much administrative effort has been devoted to managing the epidemic.

One other significant factor is that the UK has simply lost much of its policy-making skill and capacity. For decades now, the brightest and best have high-tailed it over to Brussels, where the money is so much better and there are real possibilities of seeing policy ideas come to fruition.

Similarly, academia has been bought and paid-for by the European Commission, which is a generous provider of research funds, enabling it successfully to recruit much of the academic capacity for engaging in policy-making activities. There is no evidence yet that the UK government is preparing to fill the void.

But then, there is the issue to which the Irish Times refers the continuing "purge" in the civil service, which must be having both a destabilising and demoralising effect. No senior civil servant is going to risk his (or her) career in producing contentious (or uncomfortable) policy options when confronted with the hostility evident in this administration.

But, says the Irish Times, the purge of senior civil servants or making their lives too uncomfortable to stay will continue. Furthermore, under the Gove doctrine, Whitehall departments are to be dispersed around the country, supposedly to allow more room for innovation, a wider talent pool, and an end to the rule of senior mandarins.

The net effect of that will be to reduce the already limited attraction of the civil service as a career option, where those who want to work in the capital where power resides will seek to avoid employment which exiles them out into the provinces.

One also sees the leaden effect of the Johnson/Cummings regime, where competence is clearly less important than getting advice from officials that chimes with their prejudices. Thus, the very people who are best-suited to devising policy will be dissuaded from entering the field.

On the other hand, as the Irish Times rightly observes, ministers who are incapable of hearing independent advice will inevitably pay a heavy price in their ability to deliver on their project.

As we've seen again and again, the competence of senior ministers (and, indeed, prime ministers) has long been suspect, but if they are no longer even prepared to take policy advice from civil servants, then we are entering into dangerous and possibly unknown territory.

It might also be the case where the talent pool generally is drying up. After years of dumbing down in universities, we are seeing the emergence of a generation of graduates in the political field who lack research skills and even (or especially) the capacity to think clearly.

This is most evident in the output from the numerous and ever-multiplying think-tanks, much of which is of such poor quality as to be worthless. But then the media compounds the problem, producing low-grade and derivative analysis that makes little contribution to the ongoing debate.

For what it is worth, the technical and policy output from EU institutions and especially the Commission far exceeds the output from the UK government and much of it is of high quality even if the conclusions are highly debatable. In the policy 'arms race' the EU is streets ahead.

Inevitably, that means that when the likes of Nicola Sturgeon are assessing their own options, they are more likely to be attracted to the Brussels orbit, which is generating the greater volume of ideas, than the policy vacuum of Whitehall, and ideologically motivated ministers of limited competence. If they want a fishing policy, they are wasting their time going to Whitehall.

Oddly, it was said of the UK experience in the EU, that British civil servants were highly valued for their skills and depth of experience, in the context where much policy-making in European countries is far from neutral, as civil servants are as political as their masters.

But if we're going down the path of ideologically-based policy, vested in politically-driven "special advisers" of limited ability, then it should come as no surprise that Brexit has become a policy vacuum. And, if that is allowed to become the norm, politicians will find that, once the policy machine is broken, is not easily restored.

As a result, the shambles over Brexit, may only be the start.

Also published on Turbulent Times.