What are government policies for? If you were to ask the average member of the public, they would probably tell you that they were to set the best way possible for running the country on the particular topic at hand.
Of course, that hasn’t always or even usually been the main point of government policies. In most countries in most eras, government policies have mostly been designed to benefit the interests of an elite. Kings rarely thought about the impact of their policies on the peasantry. Dictatorships design policies to ensure their control of the reins of power. The masses might get a few crumbs thrown from the table in order to keep them quiet.
The change came gradually in Britain and many would argue that the process is far from complete. But for decades politicians of all stripes have put their proposed policies to the British public on the basis that they were for the common good. “For the many not the few”. “Forward together”. Acting in the public interest has become almost synonymous with what the public thinks governments should be trying to do.
All of which makes the government’s approach to Brexit striking. The government is pursuing Brexit as something whose merits are incapable of being debated: vox populi, vox dei. This much has been implicit for 18 months and you can argue that the referendum result requires it, that the public has determined that this is in the public interest. It begs the question, however, about the form of Brexit that should be sought. It is on this particular rock that the government is foundering.
Because Brexit by itself isn’t a policy but an absence of a policy. Britain is not to remain part of the EU – fine. But what positively is it going to do? To decide this requires the weighing of trade-offs between the economic impact of different policies, the ability to control immigration, the ability for Britain to make its own laws and so on. For that weighing process to be carried out effectively, the government needs to understand the consequences.
What we learned this week is that the government has no interest in formulating a Brexit policy in the public interest. Its private economic impact assessments were leaked to the press; awkwardly, they showed Britain worse off on all scenarios. They showed differential economic harm depending on the ultimate relationship reached with the EU, with the closer the links, the less harm.
Two government ministers reacted very differently. Steve Baker from the despatch box told Parliament that all government economic forecasts were always wrong and claimed that there was a plot to undermine Britain’s exit from the EU. On a separate occasion at the despatch box, egged on by Jacob Rees-Mogg, he spread fears that it was all a civil service plot to ensure Britain remained in the Customs Union.
Phillip Lee, by contrast, said on Twitter: “The next phase of Brexit has to be all about the evidence. We can’t just dismiss this and move on. If there is evidence to the contrary, we need to see and consider that too… It’s time for evidence, not dogma, to show the way. We must act for our country’s best interests, not ideology & populism, or history will judge us harshly.” Mr Baker’s assault on inconvenient evidence and aspersions on the integrity of the civil service have passed without challenge from his superiors. The government disciplined Mr Lee. Dogma, not evidence, will show the way.
It’s one thing to doubt whether the impact assessment correctly weighed the different elements that go together to make an economic forecast. It’s another thing entirely to treat all economic forecasts as toilet paper. A confident government would simply have acknowledged the assessment, paid tribute to the professionalism of the civil service, noted that the matter could be and was viewed differently by others, that the economics were not the only consideration and that the government was weighing all of the evidence in the round in forming its policy.
It’s a telling story about a wretched government. Many commentators have noted that the economic impact assessments will change no one’s minds. They’re right. No one is going to change their view of the merits of the idea of Brexit either way on the basis of a prediction of a difference in 5% of GDP over 10 years. Those who want to believe will believe, those who don’t want to believe, won’t.
That misses, however, a very different effect. At some point in the future – probably the next election – the Conservatives are going to want to present themselves as a party who governs in the public interest. When Brexit is in the rear view mirror, the Conservatives cannot count on keeping their Leave coalition together. Many voters might pocket that and move on to the next priority, and there is no assurance that the Conservatives will be the party that is best placed to address that. So the Conservatives will need to find a way of bringing former Remain supporters on board. But the Conservatives are making it as hard as possible for many former Remain voters even to consider them.
Throughout the Brexit process, the Conservatives have been building a barricade between themselves and Remain voters. The denigration of “citizens of nowhere”, the use of EU citizens as bargaining counters, the complicity with the language of the tabloids when they attacked the judiciary as enemies of the people and Remain supporters as saboteurs – the Conservatives have gone out of their way to alienate a set of voters who they evidently but unaccountably regard as eminently dispensable.
By drawing up Brexit policy based on dogma rather than evidence, the Conservatives are building their barricade against Remain voters ever higher. Why should Remain voters ever trust the Conservatives with their vote when they have shown such complete disregard for the public interest on the most important policy decision of the age? Why should any voters trust any prediction from the Conservatives (whether that their policies will result in national prosperity or that Labour’s policies will result in national disaster) when they have shown themselves to be contemptuous of predictions?
The Conservatives were inevitably going to take ownership of Brexit when the referendum result came in. There was nothing inevitable about them putting on the mantle of conspiracy theorists denying evidence and blindly following dogma in pursuit of faith-based policy-making. It’s an open question which is going to prove more damaging in the long term.