Seafaring legend has it that in October 1707 a seasoned able seaman in Britain’s Royal Navy broke protocol to warn his aristocratic admiral, Sir Cloudesley Shovell, that his fleet was headed for rocks near the Isles of Scilly, in the western approaches to the English Channel. In the era before accurate calculation of longitude, such were the perils of inaccurate navigation. The story goes that the admiral ordered the insubordinate sailor to be hanged. What is known for sure is that four battleships foundered on those rocks and more than 1,500 men drowned, including the arrogant admiral himself.
In the era of Brexit, British civil servants are in the position of sailors dutifully manning their stations while their captains, with the disdainful certainty of the profoundly ignorant, steer the ship of state blindly into perilous waters. Nowhere is this more evident than in the foreign service: as the Conservative leadership makes England little again, it is Her Majesty’s ambassadors who feel the decline most keenly.
I was recently asked to address an American audience on the topic of British foreign policy. I declined. It would have turned into competitive commiseration: which Anglo-Saxon power is eviscerating its global standing more quickly? Which is worse: British senile dementia or American recklessness?
Rhyming with ‘musketeer’, the word ‘Brexiteer’ implies bravado and swagger, as if the proponents of Britain going it alone were romantic rule-breakers with a daring disregard for convention. I prefer ‘Brexidiot’ because they are profoundly stupid: so stupid that they don’t know the depths of their ignorance. The best arguments the Brexidiots can marshal are that Britain leaving the European Union might—just might—not go quite as badly as the experts foresaw, and that the country might, if it is lucky, end up looking like Singapore.
One of the overlooked aspects of Brexit is that it requires a professional civil service to implement a set of policies that every one of them knows to be comprehensively wrong. It is too much to ask them to implement the impossible with passion, commitment and creativity. It is particularly so as the intricacies of Brexit will mean that Britain’s civil servants can do little else for a decade. While the EU and other responsible members of the global community are grappling with global issues such as climate change, tax justice and employment in the robotic era, Britain will be uselessly chewing through an avalanche of the legal minutiae of the world’s most complex divorce proceedings, which in the best case scenario, will minimize the damage to the status quo. Britons are told that it is the most momentous political decision of a lifetime. Who wants the their lifetime’s career to be a pointless haggle over a divorce bill?
John Maynard Keynes was once confronted by a critic who admonished him for changing his mind. ‘When the facts change, I change my mind,’ responded Keynes, ‘What do you do, sir?’
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