Roger’s Rules

Will Brexit Survive the Bureaucracy?

Prime Minister Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby

The other day, I awarded the palm for the single most emetic piece about Brexit to Simon Tilford‘s inadvertently comical essay for the Centre for European Reform. It was a sentimental piece pleading, tongue-only-half-in-cheek, that the EU be kind and patient with a doddering UK that had the senile temerity to vote in a way not sanctioned by the elites in London and Brussels.

Never mind that, as the eurosceptic MEP Dan Hannan put it, “more people voted to leave the EU than have voted for anything else, ever,” in Britain. The numbers themselves don’t count, you see. It’s all a matter of who voted. Was it our sort of people?  Or was it just the angry, knuckle-dragging, ill-educated bigots who live in the wrong postal codes?

That’s a meme that is making the rounds, and if Simon Tilford gets the prize for the single most stomach-turning column to date on the phenomenon of Brexit, the prize for the stupidest column (so far) goes to an American, Joe Klein.

Writing in the posthumous organ Time, Klein courts honorable mention from the Godwin’s Law Prize Committee,  arguing that the Brexit vote “heralds the return to the grim 1930s.” And if invocation of the 1930s — the era of you-know-who in Berlin — were not bad enough, Klein really rubs his readers’ noses in it by raising the truly horrifying specter of Donald Trump.

No, it’s not original with Klein. But by the time he got around to weighing in on the subject, the idea that Brexit was somehow Britain’s equivalent of Donald Trump had congealed into an Crisco-like oleaginous mass. “The passage of Brexit,” Klein writes,  “and the presence of Donald Trump are the results of a massive lowering of standards [!] that has been promulgated over the past 20 years by the media and the leadership of political parties in both countries, in the pursuit of popularity. This is what happens when democracy grows flabby. The people, when uninterested, must be entertained, and if they can’t be entertained, their fears must be exploited.”

Unraveling all the condescending assumptions packed into those few sentences would provide apt material for a lengthy disquisition.  Ponder, to take just one element in Klein’s effusion, the implications of his suggestion that the reason people voted for Brexit was because democracy had grown “flabby.” You can turn in your reflections after the weekend. Typed and double-spaced, please.

 In the meantime, think about this further tidbit from Joe Klein:

So let’s make no bones about what happened in Britain. This was not so much a vote against the bureaucratic depredations, real and imagined, of the E.U. It was a vote – by elderly, non-college-educated Brits – against the wild flow of immigrants, most of them benign and excellent workers, but many of them reluctant to assimilate and more than a few of them embracing a faddish, lethal Islamic extremism.

“Faddish”? Extra credit if you include a paragraph on that.

The critical point, however, is snobbery. Who are those “elderly, non-college-educated-Brits” and why is anyone paying attention to them?

A couple of observations. First, the instant recovery of the stock market in the UK and the U.S. has made the Chicken Little diatribes of the Remainers look pretty silly, as have the conciliatory noises emanating from Germany, for whom free access to the British market is an “existential” necessity. Brexit may negatively affect the EU; it will be a huge net positive for the UK.

Second, let me advert to a piece of mental hygiene the Jesuit fathers imparted to us young scholars in high school: “Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.”

“Always distinguish.”  The rise of populist movements in the U.S. and in Europe is no doubt important. Neither Donald Trump nor the campaign for Brexit is intelligible without taking account of that populism.

But when one compares the phenomenon of Donald Trump and Brexit, the differences are at least as important as the similarities.  For one thing, the Trump candidacy is all about Donald Trump. Yes, he is riding a large wave of discontent. But he is the focus of the phenomenon.

Brexit is not about personalities but issues. It has spokesmen, not celebrity impresarios. It is primarily about what Dan Hannan  has called “the repatriation of sovereignty” from the EU to Britain.

But the Left-liberal establishment, in the UK even more than in the U.S., knows that the specter of Donald Trump is a reliable boogey man: drag him into any polite conversation and you can be certain of an instant visceral reaction against whatever movement he supposedly resembles.

In this sense, Donald Trump is a red herring, a bit of negative rhetorical filigree that people like Joe Klein deploy to smear the pro-Brexit campaign.

I am not sure how effective that strategy is, but it is fast becoming clear that the smug redoubts of the Remainers are determined to do everything they can to frustrate the will of the British people.

Viewers (and readers) of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister will fondly recall the machinations of Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) to make sure that the will of the Civil Service triumphs over whatever initiatives his boss, the hapless Jim Hacker, proposes. Considered as satire, it is extremely funny, partly because its portrayal of  bureaucratic sclerosis, back-peddling, and mulish obstruction of anything that would challenge conventional wisdom seemed so true to life.

But satire remains funny only so long as there is a healthy distance between reality and the thing satirized. Sir Humphrey is funny and not horrifying because there is a prominent element of exaggeration in his antics. The satire is pointed because it is so true to life. It is funny because life is not, in the end, quite so bad.

Or is it?  The votes over Brexit had hardly been counted before various strategies to ignore or overturn the vote were put forth. Some die-hard Remainers circulated a petition to demand a second referendum. If the people didn’t vote the right way the first time, make them vote again. It’s a strategy the the EU has employed with success. When the benighted populace voted against the EU Constitution, the mandarins in Brussels simply rewrote it in more unintelligible terms and, presto, the Lisbon Treaty was born.  One Labour politician recommended that Parliament simply ignore the referendum. Various pundits proposed complicated legal or parliamentary schemes to circumvent the vote.

But so far probably the most effective strategy to block the implementation of Brexit has been the Appleby-like imposition of bureaucratic obfuscation. Fortunately, prominent Leave partisans like Douglas Carswell, William Cash, Dan Hannan, and David Campbell Bannerman are onto the scheme and are responding vigorously.  “I fear the civil service has become an agency of the EU,” said Bannerman, a conservative, eurosceptic MEP. “Many officials regard their jobs as enabling the EU in the UK, rather than representing the UK in Europe.”

Douglas Carswell, UKIP MP for Clacton, echoed the charge: “Project Fear is giving way to Project Backsliding,” he said. “The establishment is doing everything it can to dilute what Leave means. . . . We can’t possibly entrust this process to the same civil servants that have been tangled up in this mess for the last 40 years.”

William Cash, a eurosceptic MP who chairs a parliamentary committee monitoring the Brexit negotiations, was more upbeat. He acknowledged that “a lot of people want to obstruct the democratic will of the British people,” but concluded that “the civil servants are duty-bound to carry out the will of Government.”

“We are assuming that leave means leave,” Cash said, “and expect whatever arrangements are made to be based on repealing the 1972 European Communities Act. Once repealed, that will carry away every treaty and every piece of European legislation that has ever been passed.”

I hope he is right. Sir Humphrey was unavailable for comment.