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Speaking truth to power

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The resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the British ambassador to the European Union in Brussels, has raised serious issues not only about Britain’s strategy for Brexit but also about relations between officials and politicians and their political advisers.

Rogers was an experienced negotiator and former Treasury official with wide contacts in Europe. He was clearly frustrated by the fact that he was neither adequately consulted nor informed about British aims in the forthcoming negotiations with the EU about Brexit.

He seems to have found the political advisers (Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill) who are the prime minister’s chiefs of staff were unwilling to understand the complexities that Britain will face in negotiations with the EU. He was also increasingly frustrated by the apparent obtuseness of the ministers responsible for Brexit, who seemed unable to grasp that the task of persuading the other 27 EU countries to grant Britain a satisfactory deal would be daunting and lengthy.

In a damning email to his staff explaining his resignation, Rogers hoped that they “would continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” and that they would “never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power.”

Rogers pointed out that Britain lacked a corps of experienced trade negotiators and that free trade could not be achieved by simply leaving the single market and customs union, and relying on the World Trade Organization. Trade was not just governed by tariffs.

The ideologically minded supporters of Brexit have attacked and denigrated Rogers, demanding that the EU negotiations should be run by staff who are optimists determined to make a success of British independence from the EU. But as one distinguished former senior civil servant wrote in the context of Roger’s resignation, “To dismiss realism as defeatism and damn dissent as disloyalty is to court disaster.”

The British delegation to the EU were apparently as unaware as the British Parliament and public about U.K. aims and strategy in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

This has suggested to many observers the possibility that neither the Cabinet nor the prime minister have reached any conclusions let alone a consensus on how to tackle the most important issue facing Britain in a generation.

The influential London Economist’s latest issue is headlined “Theresa Maybe. Britain’s indecisive premier.” It argues that she “does not really know what she wants” and blames much on her reputed reputation to micromanage every issue.

Prime Minister May, in her speech last autumn to the Conservative Party conference, promised to invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty and start the Brexit process by the end of March. This promise was apparently made to appease the Brexit supporters in the Tory party without full thought having been given to the strategy to be followed. It also failed to take due account of the European aspects of the decision such as important elections in France and Germany later this year, which could influence the attitudes of these countries toward Britain and its Brexit aspirations.

May is due to give a speech shortly in which she is expected to set out some of the parameters for the Brexit negotiations. Few expect that this will give more than a few hints about her aims. But she may be forced to give Parliament a greater insight into the government’s strategy if, as expected, the Supreme Court rules that Parliament must be formally consulted before Article 50 is invoked.

The resignation of Rogers raises important issues in relation to the role of civil servants. Under the British system, civil servants are supposed to be politically neutral in their work. Whatever their personal views, they are bound to work for whatever party or parties are elected to power.

Under recent governments, ministers have been able to appoint a limited number of political advisers from outside the civil service.

The number of these advisers and their powers is a matter for each government. Inevitably, personalities may clash and political advisers may assume that they are in charge when responsibilities are not clearly defined.

Rogers’ email to his staff should not have been published, but its leaking was probably inevitable in view of the clear frustration of civil servants. Their loyalty cannot be sustained if ministers are not prepared to inform and consult them about government policies and strategy.

A good civil servant should use tact and finesse in conveying to his political masters unpalatable facts. It is counterproductive for an ambassador to tell his masters that an action will forfeit the goodwill of the government to which he is accredited. It is much more effective to explain the damage that the action will cause to specific national interests. In reporting the views of foreign government he should also stress what he has said and done to explain his government’s views.

His first duty must, however, be to “speak truth to power.” If to further his career or out of timidity he only writes or says what he thinks his political masters wish to hear he is little more than a “yes man” and a political lackey. One of the reasons dictators and princes fail is because they surround themselves with sycophants who don’t point out the pitfalls that face the overconfident and the arrogant.

The issues in this case are not simply ones for Britain alone. They are also relevant to Japan. Japanese ambassadors must from time to time have faced similar problems in trying to speak truth to power. But it often seems to the outsider that in Japanese companies loyalty is given more weight than truth and reality. How often does the brave man who tells his boss that a proposed course of action is unwise or wrong get sidelined?

In this “post-truth” world we do not want to find ourselves living in a “post-fact” society such as President-elect Donald Trump seems to aspire for the United States.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.