‘Be Prepared!’ Why the Civil Service needs to take something out of the Boy Scout handbook

‘Be Prepared!’ Why the Civil Service needs to take something out of the Boy Scout handbook

It is one of those enduring jokes that Boy Scouts are always prepared. In the rather more colourful military language often used in that context, the ‘five Ps were drilled into every new recruit (Poor Planning leads to P*** Poor Performance). From the fact that the Government campaigned for Remain at the Referendum and that Civil Servants were prevented by David Cameron specifically from preparing for both eventualities, we can assume the Civil Service have been playing catch-up these last nine months.

So what should our Civil Service be doing in order to make Brexit a resounding success for everyone involved?

During the 1980s when the privatisations were in full flow, both Civil Servants and outside advisers prepared detailed and balance briefings that took into account both sides of the argument together with detail irrespective of whether they or not agreed before primary legislation was passed in Parliament.

So, assuming the Civil Service need to, how do they catch up? Well, perhaps they can review the precedents from history. There will likely be a lot, given our many years of governing large and very different sections of the world.

For example, recall the Foot and Mouth epidemic of 1967-68. A full public enquiry wrote the complete answer to this problem and yet the Blair Government fumbled around unnecessarily in 2001. Reportedly, only one MP requested a copy of the Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Foot-and-Mouth Disease part 1 and 2 (published on 7th March 1969 and 3rd November 1969 respectively) from the House of Commons Library.

Similarly, some pointers might be gained from re-reading the Common Travel Area arrangements with Ireland of 1923, which predate anything to do with the European Economic Community (EEC). Our Civil Servants need not stop at learning from our history, however. They can learn from the current best practices from around the world. There is nothing stopping them, except perhaps motivation and courage in the face of difficulty.

Another option for our Civil Servants is to “phone a friend” and there are plenty of them with the relevant experience. There are, in particular, international businessmen who have experience from all over the world and who are eager to partake in the process in the UK’s best interest. After spending the last forty years becoming accustomed to handing over competences, seemingly, the EU has become the de facto Option A, the default position, for our Civil Servants.

Yet, whichever competence one chooses to focus on from the ones we will regain after leaving (be it in trade policy, immigration, fishing, farming, rules of origin, tenders and the rest), there is always a better way of doing it, which should be Option A, not Option B. We need to remember that Option A has been done, or is being done successfully, elsewhere. Failing that, then Option A should be about doing it better than anyone else. Surely, that is what it means to achieve a truly Global Britain after all ?

Timing for withdrawal is not an issue. Dunkirk was sorted in a few days. Princess Diana’s untimely funeral borrowed the plan for the then Queen Mother’s on-file preparations. Germany was reunited in only a year and that reunification was not trivial. With suitable focus and motivation, anything can be accomplished, particularly if deadlines are imposed and we have the right attitude.

We need the Civil Service to have courage and the right attitude, namely, flexibility and the ability to think outside the box. Neither can they take anything for granted. For example, can we really rest assured that a Le Pen win in France will not happen? What happens if the Italian banks go bust and there is another European banking crisis? Have these potential downsides been covered off fully and, most importantly, how do we protect the British public and taxpayer to best effect?

We have nothing to fear from the so-called “cliff” or from any unexpected events. We only need to be prepared, flexible, adaptive and, most importantly, to just get on with it.