Ben Knight worked as a civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) between 2017 and 2019, shines a light onto the workings of that department under the May administration. DExEU’s young civil servants tried in good faith to carry out the tasks they were given, but were continually hamstrung by government secrecy and dysfunctionality. This article was originally published by Brexit Central and is reproduced with kind permission.
I worked for two years as a civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union. I cannot fault the staff I worked with, who represent the very best and brightest that the British Civil Service has to offer. DExEU felt more like a start-up business than a lumbering ministry of state: it was full of the young, the fresh and the energetic, the crème de la crème of the British labour market. They come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse ambitions; but my experience of my colleagues was that they were single-mindedly devoted to the task in hand and committed to doing as they were asked, whatever their private views might have been.
Let’s not kid ourselves either, though: this is a Department with no offices outside of London; the average age of its staff is around 30, and almost everybody there was educated at a top university. It’s far from a Brexiteer’s natural home. Indeed, when people joked about cities burning and aeroplanes falling out of the sky, one was never entirely sure whether they were joking or expressing a sincerely-held fear.
But they did their jobs and they did them well, even as they were strangled by the Cabinet Office’s consistent refusal to engage under Olly Robbins. David Davis and Steve Baker have spoken at length about the extent to which they were mere flotsam in a tidal wave of secrecy and duplicitousness at the heart of Whitehall. Suffice it to say that nothing these men have claimed about their treatment is to my knowledge untrue or exaggerated. Indeed, the record will show in twenty years’ time that it was often far worse than they expressed.
Finding out what the negotiators were doing, or even what they were aiming for, was an impossible task. Those charged with lobbying the EU’s member states had no line of sight into what Robbins’ cabal actually wanted to achieve. DExEU was downgraded quickly from the negotiator-in-chief to a mere passenger in events, so much so that a ConservativeHome leak revealed that the Department had been drawing up its own version of the infamous Chequers White Paper only to be knocked to the ground by Number 10’s bouncers and stuffed like a Christmas turkey with the Cabinet Office alternative. I have heard senior officials describe the whole process as ‘threaded with paranoia’ and declare in no uncertain terms that much of their efforts were rendered ‘dysfunctional’ – or, to use the popular civil service vernacular, ‘distinctly sub-optimal’.
All in all, the abiding sense was that nobody quite knew exactly what we were supposed to be doing. Under the May administration, delivering Brexit was the stated aim of the Government – but the reality was very different. Britain was sleepwalked into an agreement which tied the UK into a ‘common rulebook’ rather than establishing mutual recognition of standards; which subordinated defence and security structures to the EU; which obliterated the nation’s freedom of action under the Northern Ireland backstop; which would continue to give the European Court of Justice a role in arbitrating UK law; and which would sell British farmers and fishermen down the proverbial river.
The core problem at the heart of our failure to secure a good, strong deal was that Brexit was seen by the people in power as a Pandora’s Box of problems, as a challenge to be mitigated rather than an opportunity to be embraced. That is how we ended up with a Withdrawal Agreement which would deliver a Brexit in name only: because the objective was always to minimise the risks of Brexit, at the expense of any potential gains.
I had anticipated, expected even, that after the referendum result the country would accept the decision taken as a decision made, and rally round to support the future for which the public had voted. I was wrong and naive. In truth, whilst the battle of 23rd June 2016 was won, the wider war was not: from dawn on the 24th, it was necessary to remake the case for Brexit and to fight hard for the vision of Britain outside the European Union anew. Every single day between referendum and delivery, the Government should have been seeking to bring the nation with it, persuading and convincing those who voted Remain that Brexit was an opportunity to cherish far more than it was risk to be feared. We failed to step up to the crease.
But it is never too late to make amends for our mistakes. If we frame Brexit as the staging post for a much broader vision which puts the United Kingdom at the centre of the world and which sets its people free, we can and will bring the country with us.
Brexit means the end of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and of EU law, returning sovereignty to Britain. It is a fundamental principle of democracy that rulers should be chosen by the ruled; but no voter elects the Presidents of the European Parliament, Commission or Council, nor any one of the European Union’s 20 Vice Presidents. The only elected organ of the Union, the Parliament, has no powers to initiate legislation and only limited powers to scrutinise the Commission.
The extension of Qualified Majority Voting means that Britain’s voice can be routinely overruled, and that the British people can be subject to laws for which not a single British individual has voted. This is plainly an aberration and an assault upon the core tenets of basic political rights. No: the only legitimate form of governance is one in which those with the power to make laws are directly accountable to every individual to whom those laws apply. The restoration of full parliamentary sovereignty in the United Kingdom will mean that our 650 MPs, each of whom we directly elect, are solely responsible for deciding the laws of the land.
Many fear that this will lead to a decline in standards; that our MPs cannot be trusted to maintain environmental protections, save us from the horrors of chlorine-rinsed chicken or prevent workers from being forced to perform 25-hour shifts. But the principle of democracy will always apply: the people will be able to elect a government which pledges to do what they feel is right. At the moment, that level of control simply does not exist.
Brexit will allow Britain to make its economy more open, more flexible and more competitive than ever before, with new power to abolish VAT, strike up its own free trade deals around the world or even pursue unilateral tariff liberalisation, and set its own rules on state aid and the regulation of markets. This need not herald a race to the bottom but instead a race to the top: lower taxes, a fairer, freer and more open economy which rejects corporatism and vested interests, and which protects innovation and Britain’s natural talent for technological advancement from increasingly ham-fisted EU directives. And of course, should Britons dislike the direction in which their government is taking their newly liberated economy, they may well elect a new one: at present, the voters of Britain have no power to choose on what basis our international trade policy is set.
Brexit abolishes the insane and racist doctrine of passport discrimination, which allows predominantly white European migrants to enter the country unconditionally but which prevents people from the rest of the world from competing on a level playing field for visas, jobs and homes. Brexit will also deliver control of immigration, allowing the nationally elected government to decide on the criteria for admission. I am, despite the myriad stereotypes about xenophobic Brexit voters, extremely pro-immigration and would favour relatively relaxed restrictions: the point is that it should be the British government, elected by British voters, which decides – and that a doctor from Hong Kong should have the same opportunity as a doctor from Germany to come to build his or her career in the United Kingdom, rather than being subjected to second-class status because of a protectionist European model which seeks to shield the continent of Europe from investment, both economic and cultural, from outsiders.
Fundamentally, Brexit gives us freedom.
The freedom to liberalise trade and open our economy up to new markets, serving as an open and competitive counterweight to the politics of Donald Trump and China, and forging for Britain a role as a global beacon of free enterprise and achievement.
The freedom to revamp our tax system in the way that we choose, delivering savings for the poorest and the just-about-managing by bringing down rates and replacing VAT – a freedom that will be increasingly diminished by the spectre of increasing fiscal harmonisation should we stay in the EU.
The freedom to allow our society to soar, with an immigration policy defined not by your origin but by what you
have to offer.
The freedom to liberalise our agricultural industry along the lines of what New Zealand has done with great success, whilst protecting our fishermen from the abusive slicing up of our coastal waters.
The freedom to go further than the EU on environmental protections and on technological innovation, defending such concepts as free expression and creativity which have been most effaced by the EU in its numerous ludicrous legislative programmes, most notably the recent attempt to ban memes.
The freedom to chart our own course, choose our own destiny, and be ruled by our own elected masters: if we don’t like what they’re doing, we can get rid of them.
The freedom to revive our proud common law system, which protects individual freedom and corporate innovation, by doing away with the extensive acquis communautaire.
The freedom to save billions from ceasing to fund the protectionist Common Agricultural policy, to move nimbly and quickly in the field of foreign trade deals to make the most of the £300 billion in exports that Britain sends to countries outside the EU, where 90% of world growth over the next decade will be happening.
It is the freedom to forge our own future, write the next pages of our own national story – leaping enthusiastically into our globalised and interdependent world, far from shutting ourselves away from it as Remainers fear.
Brexit should not be treated as a catch-all cure in and of itself. It is, as I always said in DExEU, neither panacea nor pogrom. What it represents is an opportunity to begin to do things radically differently in this country. It is a risk, but any good businessman will tell you risks are part of any journey to success. If embraced, pursued proactively with enthusiasm and treated as an opportunity to be made the most of – rather than a challenge to be mitigated and an exercise in damage limitation – Brexit can be a bright moment of ignition, the first spark in a blazing inferno of national revival.
I hope that the Government will learn from the mistakes of the last two years, and make the case for pursuing its policy anew: and I hope that my former colleagues at DExEU will be empowered, once and for all, to do their jobs.
Ben Knight worked as a civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) between 2017 and 2019, shines a light onto the workings of that department under the May administration…
A young civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) gives an insight into the on-goings of a hapless, remain-led government at the pivotal time in our "negotiations".