The Spectator's Notes

The civil service’s anti-Brexit bias

20 October 2018

9:00 AM

20 October 2018

9:00 AM

Can you think of a serious crime which does not involve hate or, at the very least, contempt? You must hate people to murder them, rape them, rob them, beat them up, post excrement through their letterbox or even defraud them. This intense hostility is a good reason for punishing such actions. The concept of ‘hate crime’ ignores this. It fastens on particular hatreds, making it worse for, say, a black person to call a white person a ‘white bastard’ than for him to call a black person a ‘f***ing bastard’ (or vice versa). Why? Racism, religious enmity, anti-gay feeling etc are sources and triggers of hate, so they are often important factors in a crime, but once they are specially categorised they skew the system to downplay all other forms of hate. People have come to realise this, so now they want to invent other categories of hate crime — misandry, ageism, hostility to sensitive groups such as goths, and so on. This process is a dead end because hate crime is, by law, self-defining. Ever since the Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawrence affair, incidents of hate crime are automatically logged if a ‘victim’, ‘or anyone else’, perceives them to be such and reports them. Thus hate crime figures constantly rise (94,098 last year, apparently, ‘up 17 per cent’), without the law being able to establish the evidence — let alone secure a conviction — in all but a tiny minority of cases.

It would not be a better society, for example, if class prejudice became a hate crime and we had to lock up John le Carré. He has just declared that Etonians are a ‘curse on the earth’, but I think it would be prudent to let it pass. He taught there once upon a time, after all, and so his views deserve respect. Others have held such opinions. In his gripping new biography of Churchill, Andrew Roberts draws attention to a speech in 1940. ‘Hitler,’ said Churchill, ‘in one of his recent discourses declared that the fight was between those who have been through the Adolf Hitler schools and those who have been at Eton.’ Churchill was speaking at his old school, so he continued: ‘Hitler has forgotten Harrow, and he has overlooked the vast majority of the youth of this country who have never had the chance of attending such schools, but who have by their skill and prowess won the admiration of the whole world.’

Sir Mark Sedwill, the acting cabinet secretary, wrote to the Times on Tuesday to defend the honour of Olly Robbins, the Prime Minister’s EU adviser, who is credited, if that is the mot juste, with delivering Brexit. He was right to do so, because Mr Robbins is not allowed, by the rules, to defend himself, and ministers have unfortunately become readier than in the past to brief against civil servants. (And, it must be said, civil servants to brief against ministers: look at the torrent of leaks against Boris Johnson while he was Foreign Secretary.) But I would ask Sir Mark to consider the question as it looks from the outside. I suppose I know several scores of existing and former civil servants and diplomats quite well, some very well. Among them, I have come across three or four who are pro-Brexit, quite a large minority whose views are genuinely unidentifiable, and dozens and dozens who are anti-Brexit, some passionately so. One told me, with burning anger and as if this were the knock-down argument, that if we Brexited, there would be fewer dinner invitations in Washington DC for British diplomats. Pro-EU views are natural among the senior official classes, because the EU form of government is bureaucratic rather than democratic, and therefore seems more rational to the official mind; but in such volume they undoubtedly add up to a bias. Sir Mark writes, ‘Civil servants have always trusted that our fellow citizens, whatever their views, know that we are doing our duty to implement the decisions of the governments they elect.’ Possibly, but Brexit is not a decision of a government, but of the people in a referendum. Pro-Brexit fellow citizens recognise that the mandarins are conscientious, but it is simply not possible to believe that they are doing their best to get us out. Whitehall thinks Brexit is dreadful, so it tries to accomplish it not with maximum success, but with minimum damage. Its definition of damage is anything which separates Britain from the EU. It is an overwhelmingly negative and fearful frame of mind, and I am afraid Mr Robbins exhibits it. Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-head of MI6, and one of the very few brave enough to swim against the Whitehall tide, wrote to the Times the next day to ram this point home.

So it may sound contradictory to agree with Lord Ricketts, former head of the Foreign Office, when he complains that the Foreign Office ‘has had its limbs amputated’ by being shut out of the Brexit process. Isn’t it good, after all, to keep that nest of Europhiles at bay? No, because the Foreign Office has the knowledge, contacts and skills, if given proper political leadership, to negotiate. Excluded, it has an incentive to weaken the process. One reason life is so ghastly for Mr Robbins is that Mrs May made the huge error of ‘taking personal charge’ of Brexit, which she is ill qualified to do. Thus she removed her ability — so valuable for a prime minister — to keep some distance from the actions of her own government, and earned the undying enmity of those who know most about the subject.

The funeral took place last week of my much-loved cousin Alice Cherry, who lived at Weston Manor, Weston, Herts. One of the hymns chosen was ‘The Day Thou Gavest’. The penultimate verse begins, ‘The sun that bids us rest is waking/ Our brethren ’neath the western sky’. At Alice’s insistence, ‘western’ was printed as ‘Weston’, which was pleasing and touching. By the way, both Alice’s father and her husband were wounded fighting the Germans in the second world war. I wonder how common that honour was.

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