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Sir Ivan Rogers: 9 Lessons in Brexit

Monday 29 April 2019

Chorleywood Memorial Hall




I am going to start with a recommendation and plug: the events organised by The Chorleywood and Gerrard's Cross Bookshops are always a delight. Their website boasts a Spring and Summer of fascinating talks, including writers such as Victoria Hislop, Jo Brand and Robert Harris. In convenient locations in the Chorleywood area, I have always found these talks to be highly engaging, congenial evenings.


Briefly, Sir Ivan Rogers quit his role in 2017, as former ambassador to the EU, in the face of pressure having fallen out with colleagues over the handling and direction of the Brexit negotiations. In the presence of Sir Ivan Rogers, I felt myself psychologically strapping in, like on one of those fairground rides where you don't fully trust the people in charge. That is not a dig at Sir Ivan Rogers, more at the MPs and leaders who, he confirmed, have made an unmitigated mess of the Brexit process.


True, the audience seemed to know that things have not gone to plan (if plan is the right word), including one poor chap in the Q and A who, by his own admission, was contemplating throwing himself under a bus in response to the crisis. I hope that he did not mean it. It made me think of Emmeline Pankhurst (and her martyrs) back in the day. What would the suffragettes have made of the Brexit issue? You do have the vote, Emmeline, but if you vote the wrong way we just won’t action it.


Now there's the interesting thing about Sir Ivan Rogers. In a room full of Remainers (they remained until 9.45pm), he pointed out that a second vote or 'people's vote' would be counter-productive. Quite clearly, before he said this view, it was evident that most of the audience wanted a second vote. As Sir Ivan Rogers calmly explained to the audience why a second vote would not solve the current problems, especially if it ended in a Remain vote, I got a glimpse of what he might have been like, in the heat of Whitehall, explaining to senior politicians why they might want to re-think their latest strategy. Indeed, Sir Ivan Rogers made references to conversations that he had had with Theresa May, in which he had laid out the error of her ways.


He can't tell us what will happen next, but what he can do is point out the various possibilities of what might happen next. And none of it sounded positive. A no deal Brexit, with WTO rules, was made to sound unthinkable. I think I understood that he believes in single market membership, and made the very reasonable point that a trade negotiation is particularly difficult when the starting point is to pull away from the other party.


For a relatively temperate man, he is not blind to the extreme divisions and anger caused by Brexit in the country. Indeed, the tensions were evident in the room. What was not especially evident, certainly in Sir Ivan Rogers' talk, is any real grasp of the lives and motivations of the 17.4 million people who voted Brexit. They were conspicuous by their absence (in every sense), and yet Sir Ivan did not seem to subscribe to the view that they were easily duped by the "posh boys" that J. K. Rowling referred to in her quotation on the cover of his book. I think that to Sir Ivan Rogers people voted as they voted; the pragmatist only has time to deal with things as they are, not why they happened.


I can clear up one point on this. In 2001, approximately 60% of voters turned out for the General Election. In the referendum the figure was some 72%. If these extra voters are so gullible to propaganda, on the side of a bus say, it does seem strange that they were not gullible enough to bother voting in the General Elections. There were falsehoods on both sides, shrugs Sir Ivan. The 350 million figure was plain incorrect, but it is true that the UK's fast growing economy meant higher contributions to the EU budget.


I'll finish on a reference to education. In his career as a civil servant, spanning over thirty years, Sir Ivan Rogers has worked with a number of high profile politicians from both parties. Something has changed. We expect too much of them, he said, but at the same time, compared to yesteryear, contemporary politicians simply do not show the intellectual rigour and critical thinking that he experienced before. Perhaps this is because Sir Ivan Rogers is older and, relatively, most politicians simply know less than him by virtue of youth and inexperience. It could also be that the intellectual inferiority of 2019 politicians really is there. The problem is, as one audience member pointed out, we elect these politicians and therefore they do represent us. Perhaps critical thinking and intellectual rigour is disappearing from the body politic because it is also disappearing from education.



9 Lessons in Brexit, by Ivan Rogers is published by Shortbooks