Former top civil servant O’Donnell has a viable vision of Remain

Former Remain supporters of the moderate tendency have gained a powerful ally in Gus O’Donnell the former UK Cabinet Secretary. The role is recognised as the fountainhead  of Making It Happen in government – or explaining to ministers why it can’t happen. It’s all the more important at such a politically volatile time.  In an interview with the Times (£) he gives his thoughts on referendums and the massive difficulties of disengaging from the EU ( “years and years”). He is happy to speculate that full withdrawal may never happen.    While O’Donnell is now a free agent, it goes against the usual instincts of a cabinet secretary to speak out so boldly when the job itself is to carry out the wishes of the government. He doesn’t quite breach that convention, but he comes close.

( Gus O’Donnell) is roving the corridors of the newly formed Department for Exiting the European Union for a Radio Four programme called Brexit: The Leavocrats (to be broadcast on Wednesday) about how his former colleagues are getting on in the civil service’s “greatest challenge since World War Two”.

“I do have an idealistic outcome: which is that the EU, confronted with all the problems that it has got at the moment, changes quite radically.” In this Utopian vision, some countries in the eurozone would in effect form a superstate to make the euro “sustainable”. And then the other EU members, “a broader group”, would become “much more loosely aligned” — more in the Anglo-Saxon spirit. And this is what may have the Leavers choking on their English frizzante: “Lots of people will say, ‘We’ve had the referendum, we’ve decided to go out, so that’s it, it’s all over.’ But it very much depends what happens to public opinion and whether the EU changes before then. It might be that the broader, more loosely aligned group is something that the UK is happy being a member of.”

Lord O’Donnell predicts that the administrative challenge of separating from EU law will mean a slow pace of change. “While we can leave relatively quickly, what leaving means is a huge administrative and legislative change because all of those rules and laws and directives that have been implemented over this last 40 years. My instinct is we will almost certainly stick with them and say ‘OK, we’ll keep them for now’, so you can leave with everything in place.”

Although he acknowledges “that’s not what people voted for” he says that parliament will need to “go through them all to try to sort out which ones we want to keep and which ones we want to get rid of and which ones we might want to augment. And that process is a process that will take parliament years and years and years.”

Brexit was plainly not Lord O’Donnell’s preferred outcome. Does he think it was appropriate for the British public to adjudicate on something as important as leaving the EU? “I am really in favour of representative democracy,” he says, “so I think you vote for parties, and then let the party get on with it. In general I am not a big fan of referenda.” One problem was the communication to the public of “facts” on both sides. He says there were “ridiculous claims”, both sides “bandying about so-called statistics that just aren’t true”.

Very thorny questions arise: if you want to stay in a more flexible outer layer of Europe why go through the agony of quitting in the first place?

Do you believe that  pressure from Brexit negotiations combined with the results of elections on the continent next year will make O’Donnell’s vision of a two- stage Europe a reality?

Will the radical Brexiteers apparently in charge of the process accept this vision as at least a possible outcome? All their  statements so far suggest not.  Something will have to give.

Is Angela Merkel heading for a looser or a tighter Europe? (FT£)  The signals are mixed.

Ms Merkel, who has scheduled meetings with 15 EU leaders across five countries, is attempting to find common ground between member states that have erupted in disagreement since the UK’s vote for Brexit, ahead of a critical summit in Bratislava on September 16 to discuss the future direction of the union.

“Brexit is not just any event. It is a deep break in the EU’s history of integration, and so it is important to find a careful answer,” said Ms Merkel in Warsaw. “We must face the consequences [of Brexit] and consider the future of the EU. Citizens will only accept the EU if it makes it possible for them to prosper.”

A British  vision of ” a reformed Europe” is well set out by the constitution authority Vernon Bogdanor

  The British contribution to Europe was always to insist that rhetoric is subordinated to reality. Realism is now desperately needed if the European project is to be rescued from the elitist and technocratic establishment which currently dominates it, and which is losing it the support of its people. Perhaps if EU leaders listen to what citizens are saying, it might even be possible to persuade the British public to have second thoughts in a second referendum.

A nice question is lurking for Irish politics. In any two stage Europe of a loose association including the UK and a fiscally integrated core around the euro, where does Ireland best belong?


The “ warning” of the EU Commission to the Irish government against scrapping the Universal Social Charge (USC) and  suspending water charges may be justified or not justified,  but it’s little lectures like this in support of a controversial economic model that UK voters – rightly or wrongly – refuse to accept from such a powerful though unelected body. The objection is as much to the  self confident tone, like an Roman  imperial order, as much as the content.

   ( The Commission)  it warns of a number of risks – most notably the effect of a British exit from the European Union.

The Commission says the uncertainty created puts a greater premium on prudent management of the economy.

It insists the Government must “balance the demands for spending increases and tax cuts against the need to complete the adjustment, address the housing and infrastructure deficits and to prepare for adverse scenarios”…. The Commission says the decisions to decrease personal taxes and to suspend water charges will absorb further resources and “represent an erosion of reforms”.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Anglo-Irish

    Can’t help feeling that the civil service let us down on this one.

    Sir Humphrey would never have let it get that far.

    When Jim Hacker came up with one of his innovative ‘game changing’ ideas Sir Humphrey would always affect approval and then remark ” That’s extremely courageous of you Prime Minister “.

    Jim would then get a look of nervous fear in his eye and inquire ” Courageous, in what way? ”

    Humphrey would then proceed to explain the unintended consequences of the suggested idea, and how the end result would be the ignominious end to Jim’s career and his early enforced retirement.

    Why someone didn’t advise Cameron in the same way when he came up with his master plan to combat the attraction of Ukip is anyone’s guess.

    Perhaps they did, perhaps Cameron is thicker than Hacker, events would tend to confirm that possibility.

    I like O’ Donnells idealistic outcome but not convinced it will happen unless it becomes abundantly clear to everyone that a ‘Hard Brexit’ is too damaging.

    As to the final question I believe that given Ireland’s history, and the unbreakable bond between the two countries combined with Ireland’s size of population it would be to everyone’s benefit if Ireland joined in the ‘ loose association’ group.

    Not sure what would happen with the currency in that event.

  • chrisjones2

    The reality is that we need a relationship with Europe that has all sorts of dimensions – political , economic, cultural and security to name a few. As a Brexiter I want those to be close and friendly – I just want control and accountability to lie in the UK with people I can vote for and not vote for. There will still be net EU migration into the UK – but we will control the volume and criteria. I also want to see clear protection for those already settled here – they add so much to our country

    Some will scream and shout that this is not FULL Brexit. A senior EU leader recently suggested it will end up as a unique model for the UK. Good. If it delivers all these things then we and Europe can be happy – indeed, Brexit may well end up as a catalyst for other member states to take back control from the zealots in Brussels determined to build petty power bases for the nomenklatura that believes it was born to rule and should nanny all of Europe

  • chrisjones2

    There are tides in history that even Humphrey could not stop – so surf the wave and enjoy it

  • Obelisk

    In O’Donnell’s fanciful scenario, I think Ireland would be in the core group of countries…because as a Euro member it already is and leaving the core group would mean ditching the Euro. Which it would be under immense pressure not to do.

    The issue here is, this is fanciful scenario. This is the musings of a British peer on the future of the European project, something the EU will take absolutely no notice of.

    Besides, I seem to recall in the 1990s it was the British who worked hardest to stop the development of a two tier Europe. They didn’t want to lose influence as other countries integrated, so they tried as hard as they could to stick a spanner in the works and ensure that everyone matched the pace of the slowest runner i.e. Britain.

  • Declan Doyle

    One hundred years ago the north east of Ireland was an economic industrial powerhouse while the rest of the country was a mess. Today the almost exact reverse is true. Europe has played a huge part in helping the free state to become one of the world’s wealthiest countries per capita, ahead of the UK and light years in front of the North. Ireland will never risk that prosperity and the potential that come with being at the heart of Europe.

  • chrisjones2

    You are assuming that the cow will keep giving.

    You miss the point. The Milch Cow is intelligent. Ireland needed development and got it. Then she growed up and took the Euro. She is now rich.

    Even in the recession Ireland’s problems were different to the rest . Commendable the way she handled that, with Troika help.

    But now the problems lie further South. Now her wealth will be abstracted and transferred south to help the rest of the PIGS along with Roumania Bulgaria etc where the need is much greater. The danger is two fold – that the German and French tolerance for those transfers is waning rapidly and that, if Italy goes (for example), the whole system may collapse. Either could kill or collapse the European economy that Ireland depends on. There is also the risk that if foolishly the UKs Exit is treated harshly by the EU Ireland may suffer disproportionately

    I hope any of those scenarios dont happen but dont be complacent

  • Anglo-Irish

    In fairness, O’Donnell became a Peer as a result of his success as an economist, he has served as the UK Executive director to both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

    He has also filled the role of Permanent Secretary of the Treasury.

    His opinions can be taken as a little more than musings.

    He is in a position to fully realise just how complicated the extrication of the UK from 43 years of intertwined bureaucracy is liable to be.

    A point that he makes in the interview is that the UK has no experience of negotiating trade deals on its own behalf over the last 43 years and that non UK experts will need to be recruited to help.

    Not something that will go down too well with the more fanatical Brexiteers I would have thought.

    Ireland will obviously decide what is best for Ireland – as it should –
    a lot will depend upon whether continued use of the Euro is considered to be to its benefit or not.

  • Obelisk

    Is it possible to surf a tsunami? No, it isn’t. It crashes into you and drags you down.

    Brexit is a tsunami.

  • chrisjones2

    Though can Ireland opt out with permission? I doubt it

  • chrisjones2

    If you at sea and a some distance out you can ride a Tsunami.

    But it is up to the EU and UK to make sure we dont have one

  • eireanne3

    we’re all far past what brexiters and remainers want and don’t want and if the latest reports are true that the PM can go ahead without the approval of parliament we are far past what Westminster wants and doesn’t want

    The only options that appear to be on the table are a hard or a soft brexit and the dilemma lies in deciding which suits England best

  • Katyusha

    It looks like your understanding of tsunami is about as limited as your understanding of Brexit.

    Tsunami “some distance out” travel at hundreds of miles per hour with waves of a very low height. Good luck surfing on one.
    With Brexit, the earthquake has already happened. Despite the best wishes of those involved, we can’t go back and undo the vote. We can only try and mitigate against the damage it will cause, and assure ourselves that it won’t be pretty.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “We do want to be in Europe though, don’t we Humphrey? ”

    “Yes. AND no”

    Genius show.

  • Anglo-Irish

    A big favourite of mine.

    Sir Humphrey ” It is imperative that we retain a nuclear deterrent to ensure our defence against our major enemy.”

    Jim Hacker ” The Russians ? ”

    Sir Humphrey ” The French Prime Minister, The French! ”

    Sir Anthony Jay one of the co-writers died a few days ago, brilliant series.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “If you at sea and a some distance out you can ride a Tsunami.”

    And when the sixty foot wave hits the shore……………….

  • Anglo-Irish

    As the UK has shown, permission isn’t required, Ireland will, in common with all democratic countries do that which it considers to be in the best interest of the country.

    Meanwhile the UK is progressing on a course of action which the majority of its politicians, its economic advisors, its academic institutes and the CBI advised against.

    That’s what can happen when you allow a complex question requiring in depth knowledge to be answered by people who are, in the main, acting on emotion and giving little if any consideration to consequences.

    Still. might be a laugh, who knows?

  • chrisjones2

    Its a lot more subtle than that and we may have different Brexits in different dimensions ie a tailored deal. If EU leaders dont do that they will be very foolish

  • chrisjones2

    Hey thats democracy and if you cannot convince voters you dont have a coherent argument

  • chrisjones2

    You misunderstand the nature of a Tsunami. It isn’t a wave…its m,ore a welling up of water which wells and settles. The front edge acts like a massive wave / wall of water in overwhelming / swamping the low level costs

  • Old Mortality

    ‘…one of the world’s wealthiest countries per capita,’
    People aren’t still peddling that old guff, are they?. It was never true and it certainly isn’t now. Unless you consider Apple, Facebook etc to be loyal Irish corporate citizens. Ireland has made a Faustian pact with them the basis of which is you bring us lots of nice jobbies, in return we will give you unfettered access to the EU market and let you pay as little tax as you want.
    Yes, Ireland is hopelessly dependent on Europe until and unless Europe decides to blow the whistle on Irish corporate tax practices.

  • chrisjones2

    “They have a small wave height offshore, are very long (often hundreds of kilometers), and generally pass unnoticed at sea, forming only a slight swell usually of the order of 30 cm (12 in) above the normal sea surface. When they reach land, the wave height increases dramatically as the base of the wave pushes the water column above it upwards.”

    Also remember we are the earthquake so its moving away from us – though we should have no desire to inflict it on neighbours either

  • Anglo-Irish

    When it comes to deciding what constitutes the wealth of a country, it depends upon whether you consider the wealth of the country itself, or the wealth of the establishment, or the wealth of the public to be the most important.

    If, like me, you consider the last criteria to be the most important then Ireland comes out near the top, and I have been a witness of the changes over the past 60 + years.

  • Declan Doyle

    Don’t take my word for it. Just check the stats of every single global organisation which measures such things.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    And that sketch about the hypothetical launching of the bomb, it puts Dr Strangelove to shame with its absurdity.

  • Anglo-Irish

    That is in fact only one form of democracy, and it’s not the one that this country uses.

    Over the years, in our wisdom we have decided to use the form of democracy employed by most free countries known as ‘Representative Democracy’

    People present themselves to us as being intelligent, hardworking, committed and trustworthy enough to be able to evaluate the facts presented to them for evaluation and be capable of arriving at a decision that takes into account the needs of the country and the public.

    We vote for them and pay them to spend their working days doing that.

    Allowing ‘Direct Democracy’ sounds wonderful in principle but leads to people who have no real knowledge as to what the hell is going on being able to influence decisions that effect people other than themselves.

    Two examples of the type of people being allowed to vote on something that will have effect on all of us being.

    The first, whilst being funny is so stupid that I’m struggling to believe that it’s genuine.

    The second is definitely genuine, and shows why allowing the completely uninformed a vote that will have huge impact on the country’s future was ludicrous.

    I hope that through sheer dumb luck it turns out well, but that’s all it will be, and relying on luck has seen millions of gamblers wind up broke, destitute and reliant on handouts.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I was using “Wave” as a sort of shorthand (as you’ve been compelled to do yourself, I note).

    And anyway, Chris, when that sixty foot “front edge [which] acts like a massive wave / wall of water ” hits the shore……………….

    Well, no-one “rides it”, they either “grab something” (if they are very, very lucky) or are overwhelmed and drown.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Brilliant! Must start watching them again on Dave.

    A favourite of mine, among many:

    Slight problem being that I read The Times and definitely don’t fall into that category, I should do, but sadly I don’t.

  • chrisjones2

    Thats my point ….if you cant convince the punters they dont elect you

  • chrisjones2

    So paddle out to sea and as far away as sensible ready to avoid the wave when the EU Earthquake finally strikes

  • chrisjones2

    Rather better perhaps than yours …see comments above and below.

    Handbags at dawn perhaps?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    To get back to the original point which the image refers to, just how do we “distance ourselves” as you suggest from the effects of the EU exit? Those of us living in any polity dependant on Westminster are (to use another image) directly under the Pathfinder’s visual “marker flares” that show everyone following where to drop their bombs…..

  • SeaanUiNeill

    That was the pre-Murdock Times they were talkling about, was it not?

  • Anglo-Irish

    And who precisely was elected to decide the referendum?

    No one, it was a public free for all decided by ignorance, prejudice and the selfish need for a party to try not to lose votes to a right wing party run by a demagogue.

  • Anglo-Irish

    I think you’ll find dear boy that The Times is the newspaper of record whoever happens to be the proprietor.

    That was the English half of me speaking.

    The Irish half has still not forgiven the comment during the Famine that ” We are looking forward to the day when a Celt on the banks of the Shannon would be as rare as a Red Indian on the Huron. “.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Alas, AI, “Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be”……….sadly The Times included….

    (My apologies to the shades of Joan Littlewood, Frank Norman and Lionel Bart….)

  • Katyusha

    Nope. I was using simplified language (need to check my use of technical language when not talking to engineers), but if you want to debate physics I am more than happy to.

    A tsunami IS a wave, caused by a sudden, extremely large initial displacement of water (read: shifting of the sea bed due to seismic activity).

    Just because the generation mechanism and characteristics of the wave are different from wind waves does NOT mean they aren’t waves.

    Tsunami have a wavelength of maybe a hundred miles, which is why they appear to look like on onrushing tide or “wall of water”, rather than short wavelength, shallow wind waves; combined with the fact they don’t break like wind waves makes them look different to the wind waves we are used to. But how could they have a wavelength or an amplitude if they were NOT waves?

    The “drawing out” of the sea at the coast is another phenomenon explained by the wave nature of tsunami. It’s the trough of the wave hitting the shoreline rather than the peak. Waves can move the medium they propogate through in the opposite direction to wave travel as well as in the same direction; the wave is a completely separate phenomenon to the medium.

    The tsunami waters do not “well and settle”. If they did, the regions hit by the tsunami would still be underwater. Instead they surge and recede, sometimes several times. It’s natural that they do this; they are waves, they have a frequency.

    Come on, Chris. Every single term we have to refer to tsunami calls it a wave, including that term in itself – the -nami (波) in the word is the kanji for wave. What are they then, if they are NOT waves? And just how do you intend to surf one?

  • cu chulainn

    Perhaps NI should evacuate before the wave hits!

  • cu chulainn

    Yes, the UK is the epicentre of the earthquake, so that’s no problem.

  • Old Mortality

    Yes, but the statistics are misleading as anyone who understands them is aware. Ireland’s GDP is hugely inflated by profits accruing to foreign-owned businesses. GNP is the more accurate indicator in Ireland’s case. You will also no doubt be aware of the farcical upward revision of Ireland’s supposed GDP growth in 2016 from 7.8% to 25.6%.
    Finally, do not confuse income with wealth – if I have been earning more than you for 20 years and have not dissipated my entire income on riotous living, I will have accumulated more wealth than you. Even though your earnings have overtaken mine for a couple of years, that won’t be enough to make you as rich as me. The Irish were poor for so long that it’s very unlikely that they have yet become richer than the Germans, French or Dutch.

  • Old Mortality

    see response to D Doyle.

  • Declan Doyle

    Nobody swallowed the 26 percent leap baloney, even though the calculation was genuine and based on EU formula. It clearly pains you to accept that the free state people are in such good stead compared to many other nations. Even by your own GNP measure it is still one of the richest countries in the world per capita. If you really do not want to believe the international experts simply look at current revenue, expenditure and borrowing.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Saw it, wasn’t impressed by it.

    The facts are simple, as far as quality of life is concerned the general public in the Irish Republic enjoy a better standard of living than the majority of those in the UK.

    It must hurt people that are jingoisticaly pro British.

    All that shattered belief in the imagined superiority that they were daft enough to think included them, but in reality only the ‘upper class’ have access to.

    The knowledge that an Ireland unencumbered by Westminster’s interference has managed to achieve a position of prosperity starting from a position well below that of the English regions , Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to reach a position above all of them must sting.

    Makes adherence to British policies look a bit stupid, doesn’t it?

    As for your nonsense ” unless Europe decides to blow the whistle on Irish corporate tax practices “.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Oh right, so a UK Remainer is going to change the EU from the outside by having Visions.

    Maybe the EU will reform not simply because it learns the lessons of Brexit, but because it’s free from being bogged down catering for UK demands incompatible with a democratic multinational institution.

    All I’ve gotten from Brexit is that democracy means Tories in absolute power, “Free” markets in absolute power, Old Money in absolute power and the Gerrymandered Westminster free to kick parties of the plebs like UKIP to the kerb.

    Où est la démocratie?

  • 1729torus

    I think Gus is somewhat overestimating the ability of the Civil Service to befuddle change here.