The rot set in with Brexit, not Boris

As the clamour of voices warning that our democracy is under threat grows louder and louder, it’s become something of a truism to say that it all began with Boris Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street., writes Richard Haviland. 

It’s a neat story. A deeply inadequate figure becomes Prime Minister and, before you know it, corruption, lying and xenophobia have infected the body politic. But it’s a simplification. Because the truth Is that corruption, lying and xenophobia set in the moment Leave won the Brexit referendum, and that Theresa May did very little to counter them.   

May’s illiberalism, inflexibility and weakness in the face of zealots in her party all helped get us where we are today.  In particular she bears huge responsibility for the obscene normalisation of “no deal” as a valid political outcome.  But she is certainly not corrupt and nor is she a natural liar.  Rather, she is someone who found herself so paralysed by the ghastly truths revealed by the hard Brexit which she pursued that she was forced to dissimulate time and again. 

Listen to the pre-2016 or post-2019 May and you will hear someone who is articulate and sincere, whatever you think of her politics.  But listen to her as Prime Minister and you will hear the opposite. You will hear platitudes and obfuscation; half-truths and omissions. All delivered with a permanent rictus which suggested that, but for her sense of duty, she would rather be anywhere else in the world.

So it wasn’t Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street that introduced the poison into our system, even if he significantly increased the dose.  It was Brexit.  Brexit led us to a world where leave-voting ministers couldn’t be sacked, where lying became commonplace, where ministers repeatedly insulted our European neighbours and where a charlatan – who in normal times would have been nowhere near Cabinet – was able to become Prime Minister and inflict catastrophic damage on our politics.

With this in mind, and inspired by former diplomat Alex Hall Hall’s fine recent article in the Texas National Security Review, which included the letter of resignation she wrote on leaving the Foreign Office, I decided to re-read my own resignation note from the now sadly defunct Department for International Development.

It was written in March 2019, when the original Article 16 deadline was about to hit us, and No Deal was being talked about as a possible outcome. Reading it again today provides a reminder that things were bad, very bad, even before Johnson took over. He may have taken us into the abyss.  But it was the vote for Brexit, and May’s mishandling of the aftermath, that set us careering towards the top of the cliff.  See what you think.

Dear Management Board

I have recently resigned from the Civil Service after 25 years with DFID, FCO and GCHQ, and am now working my notice.   I hope that my length of service demonstrates my commitment to this country, to public service and to the values which I believe the majority of British people hold.   But I have come to the conclusion with great sadness that I must leave, because I can no longer pretend to myself or my colleagues that I am able to be a loyal servant to the current government.

This is a decision based not on Brexit, but on what has ensued from it.  Nothing in the referendum vote needed to lead us to where we are now.  We are here because of the Prime Minister’s own choices, and her refusal to confront ideologues in her party or to be honest with the British population about the implications of those choices – in particular for peace in Northern Ireland.

In my view, a government’s first duty is to provide its people both with security and a sense of security.  Any minister who tacitly advocates leaving the EU without a deal, or even allows the perception to exist that it is a possibility, is guilty of an outright dereliction of duty.   There is no mandate, when it is entirely in one’s own control to prevent such things, for countenancing a situation in which we may run short of medicine and people may die; for contemplating a set of events that might lead to the imposition of martial law; or for creating such uncertainty that businesses relocate from the UK and jobs are lost in vast numbers.    Had any of this been orchestrated by a foreign power, it would be seen as an act of war.

Beyond the madness of “no deal”, the Government’s actions since the Brexit vote have undermined our national security by treating our allies as enemies and weakening our mechanisms for cooperation; destroyed the UK’s credibility by showing the world that we cannot be trusted to honour our commitments; and sent a clear message that the Government sees its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement as secondary to the interests of the Conservative Party.   The Government has caused untold misery and stress to millions of EU citizens living in this country and UK nationals living in other EU countries.   It has sown division by treating the majority of the electorate who did not vote to leave the EU as losers, rather than as stakeholders in a mature democracy; in so doing greatly risking the future of the United Kingdom it claims to cherish.  It has made deeply offensive comments about our European allies, and whipped up and tolerated xenophobia on its backbenches.  It has repeatedly abused and undermined the sovereign parliament to which it is answerable.   It has both dog-whistled and kow-towed to the far right by arguing, as a number of ministers have done, against policies on the grounds that they would lead to violence.  And it has fostered a culture where lying is at best ignored and at worst encouraged.   Forgive me for saying that this is not normal, and that if we continue on this path the country is in very deep trouble.

I am extremely sad to be leaving the Civil Service in such circumstances.  I have always been acutely aware of how privileged I am not only to serve in a department with a mandate such as DFID’s but to work alongside so many people of the highest integrity, whose values I share.  The Civil Service represents everything that this Government does not. 

Nothing in this letter should be taken as a criticism of the Board or any of my colleagues.  On the contrary, the need for a strong, impartial Civil Service, with DFID at its centre, is more acute today than it ever has been.  It is quite right – given where the Government has chosen to lead us – to be planning for “no deal”, however many billions of pounds are being wasted on it that would have been better spent elsewhere.  But I cannot leave without putting on record my views, as I am deeply alarmed at the rate at which this government is presiding over the erosion of the norms and conventions that underpin our democracy.   

I wish all of you and this magnificent department the very best for the future.


Featured image via Shutterstock; Cartoon via Political Cartoon Gallery on Twitter; Theresa May’s cabinet discuss Brexit strategy at Chequers August 2016 via Wikimedia Commons/Prime Minister’s office