There is a growing sense of hopelessness among people in Britain in the face of over three years of non-decision making over whether the UK will leave the EU. Why, for example, after the 2016 EU membership referendum with a vote of 51.9 percent of voters in Britain chose to ‘leave’ the EU, has there still been no decision? Too many, this delay and prevarication is irrational, but when it appears that people are not behaving in a politically rational way, it is often because they are not playing the ‘game’ you think they are playing.
Think for a moment of politics as being analogous to a game, such as a football match. E. E. Schattschneider (1960) made this analogy between politics and a sporting match, arguing that they both have individuals cooperating and competing to win, under a set of rules, but that in politics – in contrast to sports – the rules of the game can be more flexible and even allow the spectators to come onto the field. That means that politics is often focused therefore on actions that keep people off the field, bring them on the field, or encourage them to change sides. That is often how a side wins in politics.
But a more realistic analogy for politics is what has been called an ‘ecology of games’ (EoG), a perspective introduced by Norton Long (Long 1958) to emphasize the degree that politics often involves the interaction of multiple actors involved in a variety of ‘games’. From this perspective, the dynamics of the Brexit debate is the evolving outcome of the interactions of multiple players within separate but sometimes overlapping games that define the rules and objectives of the various actors (Dutton et al. 2002). The outcome of these interactions of interdependent games will define Brexit.
The EoG could provide a useful framework to study the complex dynamics of decision-making processes of Brexit. I’ve defined the ‘ecology of games’ as a system of action composed of two or more separate but interdependent games, where each game identifies an arena for competition structured by a set of rules and assumptions about how to achieve a particular set of objectives. Generally, each game has several key characteristics: a set of interacting players that might compete or cooperate to achieve; a set of goals or objectives; that lead to a set of prizes; and are governed by a set of rules shaping the strategies (moves) open to players, albeit the rules of the game can be changed.
If we can identify the actors and the games shaping Brexit, we might begin to understand how to go beyond non-decision making.
Simply from following the news, like others, it is easy to identify some of the more prominent games being played. So with no pretence to being complete, consider the following types and examples of games shaping the Brexit debate:
Political parties seek to win support for their approach to the referendum: remain, leave, and other options in order to maintain and enhance their constituencies, such as by appealing to the courts, press, or directly to the public.
Factions within the parties seek to influence the party’s stance, such as in remain Conservatives seeking to prevent a no-deal Brexit, or the Conservative Party deselecting members who did not support the party’s position. Factional politics is one major explanation for non-decision making within the Labour Party.
POLITICS OF NORTHERN IRELAND
Politicians and constituencies of different factions within Northern Ireland and its unique history seek to advance their vision of the future.
27/8 nations of the EU seek to maximize national interests through compromise and negotiation over EU policy and regulation, including Brexit.
Ireland and the EU nations seek to maintain and enhance Ireland’s position within the EU in the aftermath of Brexit.
Parliamentarians and the public seek to support approaches to Brexit that reinforce their identity as European, British, English, Scottish, Welsh, and representatives of Northern Ireland. In England, there is also some identity politics across the regions as well as the nations, such as the Northeast versus the Southeast.
Parliamentarians and the public seek to maintain and enhance the allocation of resources to Britain, their constituencies, or their nation or region, as illustrated by debates of the economic impact of Brexit options.
One could go on, and you might easily identify other games being played, but the point is that there are multiple games being played simultaneously that involve different but sometimes overlapping sets of players. This makes any rational extrapolation from one’s position in a particular game difficult very problematic. But it is far more complicated than this.
Setting and Changing Rules of the Games
These games are also being played out under different rules, often set by the institutional context of each game, and which can change overtime. Most are set within the UK Parliament and following its rules of procedure, voting, and courtesy. But even in this setting, the rules can change, such as when the Speaker of the House of Commons resurrects an ancient tradition to support a procedural ruling, what some have called ‘parliamentary parlour tricks’. Yet, some of the games are occurring in the EU context, and many involve interactions between decisions of the EU and UK, such as discussions of the timing of any delay to Brexit.
Finally, it is possible to consider many other aspects of Brexit within the EoG, such as the behaviour of actors, as political strategies for changing who joins what positions on which issues. These can range from personal attacks to the parliamentary parlour tricks noted above. Accusations of misinformation, bias, and more are added to more substantive debates over the issues. Appeals to the will of the public are strategic efforts to gain legitimacy, whether in referencing the outcome of the referendum, recent polls, or as many note, referring to groups they have spoken with. Press commentators often use unnamed EU and UK politicians and administrators as sources to support their viewpoints on developments.
The ecology of games provides a simple way of understanding the complexity of the processes shaping Brexit. Until this ecology of games can align sufficient numbers for leave or remain, it will continue to evolve and potentially lead to unanticipated and unintended consequences. It seems clear that no single actor can control the full ecology of games across different and changing institutional settings. However, understanding this ecology is a first step in succeeding within it and understanding why what appear to be irrational actions are rational within the respective game being prioritised by particular actors.
Dutton, W. H. (1992), ‘The Ecology of Games Shaping Telecommunications Policy,’ Communication Theory, 2 (4), 303-28.
Long, N. E. (1958), ‘The Local Community as an Ecology of Games’, The American Journal of Sociology 64: 251-61.
Schattschneider, E. E. (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.