If we Brexit, will UK appoint its ambassadors… or Trump?

InFacts, 09.07.2019
David H.A. Hannay, miembro de la Cámara de los Lores y ex embajador británico (EU y ONU)

In Classical Greek times it was said that those whom the gods wished to destroy they first made mad. This phenomenon seems to be recurring in the ranks of the Brexiters, both Nigel Farage and his sympathisers on the Tory backbenches, as they hack away at one of the essential underpinnings of British political life since the middle of the nineteenth century: the impartiality and loyalty of a non-political civil service.

Olly Robbins, the government’s chief negotiator with the EU, has been subjected for months to sniping and innuendo, despite the fact that everything he was doing in Brussels was under the authority and on the explicit instructions of the prime minister.

When the governor of the Bank of England dared to make some pretty cautious observations about the costs and implications of a Brexit without a deal he was subjected to the same treatment.

Now we have the reaction to the unforgivable leaking of confidential diplomatic reporting by the UK’s ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, to ministers on the Trump administration – no doubt replicated, albeit in less clear and balanced terms, by any number of Washington-based diplomats. This has led to Farage criticising the ambassador for not sharing his own agenda of leaving the EU, despite the policy of the government which originally appointed Darroch being to remain in the EU.

Bill Cash, the ultra-Brexiter chair of the Commons EU Scrutiny Committee, has lent support in Parliament to Trump’s intemperate tweeting by echoing Farage’s criticism. Those tweets were added to this lunch time by the president calling Darroch a “very stupid guy” and “pompous fool”, ruling Theresa May’s Brexit policy a “disaster” and  observing that America’s “economy and military” was “only getting bigger, better and stronger”.

More insidiously, Bernard Jenkin, another stalwart of the hardline European Research Group, has suggested that retired former diplomats and civil servants still active in public life were somehow betraying that impartiality if they speak out about the problems that Brexit poses.

Let us deal with that last claim first. In my own personal case, I served UK governments from Macmillan to Blair. Every one of them came to the settled conclusion that the country’s best interests were served by being a member of the European Community or EU. There was therefore never any conflict during my service between my own personal views, based on my education studying modern history and on my experience in the 1960s of the UK being pushed around by the bigger players (the US, the EC, Japan) in the Kennedy Round of multilateral trade negotiations, and those of any UK governments.

Since I ceased to have any government employment, in 2003, Jenkin and many of his colleagues have changed their own minds about EU membership and campaigned successfully for the 2016 referendum. Why am I expected to change my mind? Or to shut up?

More widely, it really is time to stop this process of denigrating civil service loyalty and impartiality. The new prime minister needs to show by his first decisions that he will have none of it; and that the UK’s ambassador in Washington is chosen by our government and not by Donald Trump – and that diplomats are expected to report without fear or favour.

But who can be sure of this when Johnson today responded to the president’s insults by saying the US was “for the foreseeable future our number one political military friend” and boasting about his good relationship with the White House? If a strong line isn’t taken, then the damage being done by Brexit to our body politic will be even greater than it has been up to now.

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