Why the tough talk of Brexit negotiators is doomed to fail


Comment: When you draw red lines, what happens when you have to cross them?

24th November 2016
By Dan Davies

If there is one infallible 'tell' for a weak manager in a poor situation, it is that they tend to try to compensate for a lack of information by increasing the certainty and emphasis of their language.

In situations of impending corporate mergers, or possible redundancies or reorganisations, you will hear a lot of sentences written in what might be called the "managerial hyperbolic subjunctive tense": weak managers will describe things as 'vital' or 'unacceptable', 'definite' or 'impossible' when they are clearly in no position at all to be so sure.

The cleverer sort of management consultant will tell you to try not to use certainty words like vital or unacceptable, for a very good reason. Because if something happens which you have told your employees is 'unacceptable', or something fails to happen which you have described as 'vital', then what do you do? You then have to carry on and try to live with the unacceptable or without the vital, at considerable cost to your own credibility.

Brexit is not a card game, or an auction, or an exercise in gazumping on a semi-detached house in Clapham

Sad to say, the current state of political debate about Brexit seems to be full of managerial hyperbolic language. There are too many things which are vital and unacceptable, with too little information about what might genuinely be on and off the menu. If it were really true that the UK could not compromise on immigration control, while the EU27 could not compromise on free movement, for example, then there would be nothing to negotiate about and no possibility of anything other than the hardest of Hard Brexits.

In fact, there is a lot to be negotiated about, and the likelihood is that on many issues, there will need to be uneasy compromises on issues currently being presented as moral absolutes. Very many 'red lines' will turn out to be indistinct and hazy, and most of the certainty with which the debate is being conducted during the cheap talk period before triggering Article 50, is likely to look embarrassing with hindsight.

Why, then, are politicians creating so many hostages to fortune?

The answer may be related to another feature of the European debate: the frustrating refusal of either side to make their negotiating positions clear to the public. Brexit is not a card game, or an auction, or an exercise in gazumping on a semi-detached house in Clapham. There's no real advantage in keeping secret demands which will inevitably need to be revealed to the other side, or in pretending that there is no plan B or fall-back position. The real reason why so little is being communicated to the public might be that the political language with which to communicate it does not exist .

The task of building consensus is most difficult – and so the temptation to retreat to bogus certainties the greatest – when there are conflicting priorities, and no natural scale against which to trade them off. The Brexit debate saw very little agreement on whether a trade-off between long-term economic growth and political priorities even existed, let alone its magnitude. This lack of a framework stunts the debate; one might compare it to the concept of a "quality-adjusted life year" in healthcare economics, which is highly controversial but which at least allows for a sensible debate over the cost of publicly funded treatments.

Political goals like the reduction of immigration are likely to have economic consequences for future generations, but how many pounds per year of GDP is it worth to exclude one quality-adjusted headcount from the Q1 2067 net immigration statistics? To ask the question is to recognise that it is in some way a ridiculous comparison to make, but it is the sort of question which needs to be asked if only to sharpen up our thinking on choices which cannot be avoided.

Just recognising which trade-offs might need to be made would help to tell the British public what choices we are making

At present, if polls are to be believed, the majority of Leave voters would not sacrifice more than a token amount of their personal income in order to reduce immigration overall, but at the same time, they do not believe in the models or forecasts which tell them there might be a choice to be made.

The way that slow, incremental progress on these sorts of multi-faceted and incommensurable issues is made in trade negotiations between governments is to have an explicit and separate debate over which issues should be linked, as well as the issues themselves. Might this not be a model for communication with voters?

Without making commitments about particular positions to take, our government could tell us whether it plans to allow joint discussion of financial services passporting to be set against labour market regulations, or agricultural tariffs against budget contributions. Just recognising which trade-offs might need to be made would help communicate to the British public what choices we are making.

If done correctly, Brexit could be a wonderful laboratory for the development of new ways of describing difficult decision problems and building popular legitimacy, something which has never really been done before. It would certainly be a better idea than simply stating maximal claims on each individual issue, and retreating to empty and undeliverable certainties when asked what they mean.


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