Jul 24 2019

Into The Big Muddle

What is clear about Brexit is that Boris Johnson thinks crashing out of the EU with no special arrangement to ease the transition is a fine idea that will unleash the “animal energy” of the mighty British Economy to carry Europe and the World in front of it in a golden age of English dominance.

Ok, those of you who have suffered Lucas Electrics can stop laughing now.

Johnson is no more legitimate than May except he cares less about appearing a buffoon and Parliament is no more likely to accept a ‘No Deal’ that it was (which is to say ‘not at all’). I don’t see a solution without a General Election and I only hope Corbyn’s dithering has not screwed up things too much to pull out a Labour victory. Even a re-invigorated Tory Party is not going to be able to paper over the profound fissures in their caucus.

We Wargamed the Last Days of Brexit. Here’s What We Found Out.
By Luke Cooper, openDemocracy
23 July 2019

A group of us recently participated in a simulation game to model the future of the Brexit process. By assuming different roles amongst the forces in conflict over the future of the United Kingdom, we hoped to gain a greater understanding of the process and what might come next. We solicited the help of Richard Barbrook, an academic at Westminster University, and director of Digital Liberties, a UK-based cooperative that has pioneered the use of participatory simulations to anticipate political scenarios. His book, Class Wargames, applies the ideas of the French situationist, Guy Debord, who advocated the use of strategy games as performative, even theatrical, exercises to understand one’s political opponents and their strategic thinking. Barbrook designed the game, which he called, Meaningful Votes: The Brexit Simulation.

Collaborating on this initiative with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM) and the ERSTE Foundation in Vienna we assembled a group of participants in Vienna comprised of civil society, journalists, academics and intellectuals.They were a mixture of nationalities, from Austria, the Balkans, the United States and Britain, and held a plurality of political views from left to right. For mainland European participants the game provided an opportunity to empirically rationalise a crisis that many had found inexplicable; for example, the refusal hitherto of the British parties to find a compromise on Brexit in Parliament is highly alien to those used to the political systems with a culture of building consensus (often with proportional representation), that exist in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria. Each participant took on the role of a faction within Parliament with the game beginning after the defeat of the heavy defeat of the First Meaningful Vote on 15 January 2019.

So what happened? And what did we learn from this exercise?

The outcome of the game eventually resolved itself in a new referendum. By this stage the game had moved into the near future of early autumn 2019. The cross-party negotiations had failed to reach a breakthrough acceptable to both leaderships. Softer members of the Tory Brexit Delivery Group then split away from the party leadership, crossing the floor to support a new referendum. Interestingly, this came as a surprise to the game designer, Barbrook, who had anticipated a stalemate and a further extension of Article 50 at the end of October 2019.

If this suggests the game had a Remain bias, other moments in the scenario serve to refute this. At an earlier moment in the game a majority emerged in Parliament in spite of opposition from Labour and the Remain parties, for the kind of technological solution to the Irish border question favoured by the ERG as an alternative to the troubled ‘Irish backstop’. Assuming the dummy-player function, the EU then intervened via the umpire into the Parliamentary scenario to rule out an agreement without the backstop. With Parliament then voting against leaving without a deal, the political factions were confronted with the same problem they have at the current time.

The crux of this decision is ultimately a narrow one: few options are still available to parties, making the outcome relatively straightforward to model. Leave on the deal May has negotiated with the EU, which is unpopular with Brexit voters and with Labour Remain voters who would like a second referendum. Or negotiate changes to the UK-future relationship document (the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened by the EU) to make the Brexit deal softer, making it more palatable for the Labour Party but even less acceptable to Brexit voters and Brexiters in the Tory party. As the changes are not legally binding on a future Tory prime minister even a Labour Party leadership wishing to ‘deliver Brexit’ has little incentive to support such a deal. This leaves only two further choices. Hold new elections in the hope they might produce a balance in the Parliament more conducive to striking a deal. Or, move towards a new referendum, which includes the opportunity to remain in the EU.

The outcome of the game is not an exact prediction of events in the near future. One player’s calculation that at a certain stage the mainstream of the Tory party will have to try and ‘move on’ from Brexit by peeling off towards a referendum is what Carr called an interpretive hypothesis. It will be tested in the months ahead.

Rather the game offers an insight into the interests that will shape this and the core contradiction underpinning the process: that there is not a tangible, pragmatic form of Brexit acceptable to the people that want Brexit. The vote in the game for ‘technological solutions to the Irish border’ was analogous with, though not identical to, Parliament’s vote on the 30 January 2019 for the ‘Brady amendment’, which mandated the government to seek changes to the Irish backstop as a condition for passing the Withdrawal Agreement. Having passed by 317 votes to 301, Theresa May hailed it as demonstrating a ‘substantial and sustainable majority’ for leaving the EU. When the EU insisted on the Irish backstop, the refusal of the hard Brexiters and the DUP to compromise forced a logic of events that points increasingly to ‘no Brexit’.

Underpinning this is a mistaken conception of how sovereignty operates in the twenty-first century. No state, however powerful, enjoys absolute sovereignty. All states are constrained by economic and political forces beyond their border. Larger states or geopolitical blocs, such as the European Union, China, or the United States, have significantly more power to ‘shape’ the way globalisation works and operates. Britain would have to make steep concessions to these larger blocs to get a trade deal. The game successfully modelled this geopolitical logic by demonstrating – through the existence of the EU as a ‘dummy player’ – the limitations placed on UK Parliamentary sovereignty by the fact of its international relations with the wider world.

Leave campaign rhetoric about taking back control comes into contradiction with this material reality. In all Brexit scenarios, exiting the EU entails a loss of substantive sovereignty for Britain. Even the ‘no deal’ Brexit preferred by hardline Leavers would lead to Britain signing a deal on less advantageous terms shortly after the exit – perhaps in as little as ten days depending on the scale of the economic dislocation. Once the legal uncertainty and accompanying economic turmoil is experienced any government would be under huge pressure to end the chaos by striking an agreement with the EU. On the other hand, the Brexit process has also demonstrated the maximising-effect of EU membership for sovereign states: Ireland has been in a far stronger position to protect the open border with the North and the Good Friday Agreement because of the clear support of 26 other EU member-states.