The British civil service still hasn’t bought into Brexit

When I arrived in Britain as High Commissioner for Australia four years ago, I had never seen a democratic political system in such a state of crisis. Parliament was deadlocked. The Conservatives were in open civil war. And Whitehall still struggled to come to terms with the fact that the public had decreed that Britain would withdraw from the European Union.

Public servants, always guardians of conventional wisdom, are notoriously resistant to fundamental change. With Brexit, such was the shock to the mandarins of the reversal of one of the most basic assumptions of British governance for several decades, the institutional reluctance – even the resistance – was palpable.

Eventually, the political deadlock was broken with Boris Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street and his emphatic election victory soon after. Opponents were forced into a resentful silence. Sadly, as I leave London, I feel that Britain has yet to fully accept the profound change brought by Brexit. Within the power centers of Whitehall, institutional inertia remains strong.

A case in point is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has yet to adjust to the huge opportunities for agricultural trade that ‘global Britain’ offers: not just through bilateral agreements with nations such as Australia, New Zealand and India, but through membership in the Pacific Rim trading community, the CPTPP. This institutional timidity has spread to the agricultural sector itself, where people are more concerned about the threat of imports than the prospect of creating new markets among the rising middle class of Indo-Pacific nations.

I suspect that the reluctance in Whitehall and elsewhere to embrace the prospect of a truly global Britain is shaped more by cultural attitudes, imperceptibly absorbed over decades, than by economic realities. A nearly half-century cocoon within the EU has, in some sectors, weakened the entrepreneurial spirit that once defined Britain.

Meanwhile, the declinist narrative, ubiquitous for much of the period since World War II (although briefly halted by Margaret Thatcher), has corroded Britain’s self-confidence. The relentless attacks on the country’s history by some of its cultural elites have made it too much to feel that they should be ashamed of a past which, if not spotless, should be a source of pride.

Britain’s history has been a history of progress. It was Whig historians like Trevelyan who made this case; today it is conservative historians like Andrew Roberts. Whether it is the abolition of the slave trade, the evolution of the parliamentary system, the expansion of the right to vote, the creation of the welfare state, the defense of the state of law, of challenging dictators, of promoting human rights across the world or empowering minorities, Britain has been a force for good in the world.

So my parting message as I step down from the role of Australia’s diplomatic representative in London is this: Global Britain may have started as a slogan, but it can also be a reality. We see this reality taking shape before our eyes with your reaction to the outrage in Ukraine. It was Britain that led the world in the immediacy, strength and moral clarity of your response. Self-laceration and pessimism have frustrated your political and cultural establishment too much for too long. The Liberal Democrat world needs a strong, confident, enterprising and ambitious global Britain – and at this dangerous time in world history, it needs you more than ever.

George Brandis served as Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK from 2018-2022

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