By Peter Ungphakorn
Brexit is an opportunity for Britain. Not in the sense Brexiters usually mean, but for the British government to change the way it talks to the public, particularly on complex issues. The general election result had many messages, some of them conflicting. I won't repeat them all.
Instead, I'll focus on one. As far as Brexit is concerned, voters rejected the idea that all that mattered was who could be trusted to receive a blank cheque to negotiate. They resented Theresa May's failure to turn up in public debates on this and other policies.
As a result, Conservative politicians now say May should be more open to consulting her Cabinet and parliamentary party. Others are talking about a cross-party process. Or as Nick Clegg put it in the Financial Times: "Voters have had enough of being treated as bit-players in the Conservative party's self-absorbed psychodrama about Europe."
All very valid, but why stop there? What the UK government needs to do on Brexit — no matter who is in charge — is to take the British public into its confidence as it embarks on negotiations. That means being open and frank with the voters about what is involved.
The temptation is to blame May alone. She was and still is prime minister and she set the tone. But politicians are used to arguing points of view. Few recognise that they and governments also have a responsibility to inform.
I'm not talking about spelling out the government's negotiating position, although in broad terms that is needed too. I mean explaining factually and without spin what the range of options and trade-offs are, and what they mean. The purpose would be to create a better public understanding of an incredibly complex set of issues.
All that May did was to produce her own interpretation of what the public wanted in the Brexit referendum and to draw her own red lines from that. It did not help public understanding one iota.
To a large extent, fact checking teams are already providing this service, for example at the BBC or at Full Fact. They are useful, but unavoidably confrontational because they set out to challenge statements people are making. The downside is increased suspicion of politicians. Less confrontational but also useful are think-tanks like the Institute for Government (which has this interesting piece on EU transparency).
The government itself has two advantages. So long as it steers clear of spin, it carries more authority. And it has a resource the others lack: its officials. They know what is going on first-hand and they compile factual information as they prepare briefing memos and reports for their political bosses.
The basics of that information can be used to brief the public without undermining the negotiations. A good starting point is actually the remark by Brexit secretary David Davis on September 12th last year to the House of Lords EU select committee:
"This is likely to be the most complicated negotiation of modern times. It may be the most complicated negotiation of all times. By comparison, Schleswig-Holstein is an O-level question."
If only he'd gone on to identify some of the complexities and to list some of the key issues that need to be settled. It's time to kill the lie that some still believe: 'It's simple. Just leave.' Instead we had to suffer the disingenuous 'no deal is better than a bad deal' — a phrase which is hopefully now on its way to the morgue. Even so, we're still stuck with the notion of a 'Brexit that works for all'. In reality, there are going to be losers as well as winners. And yet, post-election, both May and Davis have repeated this idea.
So here's a short list of items that need to be explained: the withdrawal agreement, future relations with the EU — trade, regulation, migration, security, science, education, culture, etc — and the range of free trade possibilities with the rest of the world.
The government should come clean about how long these might take to negotiate, or how long they have taken to negotiate in the past, and how shallow or deep free trade agreements can be. It should acknowledge the range of possibilities and their potential impact, rather than simply offering the most optimistic guesses.
One example from the withdrawal deal: the Brexit bill. Estimates of how much the UK might have to pay range from zero to £100bn. There are real reasons behind those figures. They come from different views of the UK's legal and political rights and obligations — its assets, liabilities and commitments in the EU — and other technicalities such as whether the numbers are gross or net.
The government doesn't need to say yet what its own position is. That's for the negotiation. But a proper explanation would focus the discussion on what this is really about — not 'we won't pay' or 'they just want to punish us', two other statements overdue for retirement.
This might sound outlandish, but it's not. We can look at some very useful public briefing the government already provides. See, for example, the National Health Service's information on this important disease (apologies if you're squeamish), which involves complex technicalities, difficult choices, trade-offs (side-effects) and unknowns.
There is the question of which part of government should provide the information. Clearly there should be some distance from the officials actually involved in pushing a line in the talks while still being able to draw on their knowledge. Any hint of spin would undermine credibility.
However, we cannot avoid politicians putting a spin on an argument. Part of their job is to advocate policy choices. What they can do in this case is to make a commitment to support a proper factual information service that is shielded from spin. We can hope that they will use those facts to make better arguments.
One branch of government already does this: parliament. Its advantage is neutrality. It cannot be seen to side with any party. However, anything it produces beyond first principles quickly becomes complex: it relies on executive summaries of committee reports, which are usually highlighted key sentences from the full texts.
It will need more funding if it is going to produce more and accessible public information on major issues and for the briefings to be given the status of an official government service. It will also need a guarantee that officials directly involved will be able to share information confidentially, and that the government or its party will not try to impose an agenda on the output other than public information.
Alternatives are possible, such as a version of the Office of Budget Responsibility — but one more focused on producing publicly understandble information as well as scrutinising the issues. A public information unit on Brexit inside the government is also possible but it would have to be shielded from political agendas and departmental spin doctors. The old Central Office of Information might have been a candidate, provided clear specifications were set.
Do I think this will happen? No. I've been in this business for too long to believe mindsets can be changed easily. But technically it can be done and it would go a long way towards giving the British public a feeling that the government trusts them, and that they are truly part of the process. At least for those who are interested.
Peter Ungphakorn is a semi-retired journalist who spent almost two decades in the Information Division of the World Trade Organisation’s Secretariat. He blogs on trade, Brexit and other issues at https://tradebetablog.wordpress.com/
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.