Brexit as an Ecology of Games

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’ is 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:

PARTISAN POLITICS

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 no-deal 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.

EU POLITICS

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. 

IDENTITY POLITICS

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, such as the Northeast versus the Southeast.

DISTRIBUTIVE POLITICS

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 present discussions of the timing of any delay to Brexit. 

Strategies

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. 

Conclusion

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.

References

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. 

The Two Most Powerful Journalists Shaping Brexit

Laura Kuenssberg, political editor of BBC News, and Katya Adler, the BBC’s Europe Editor, are the two most powerful journalists shaping the unfolding debate over Brexit. Almost alone, these two journalists are interpreting the activities around Brexit to the people of Britain. 

It is hard to overstate the influence of the BBC on what the people of Britain know about the developments around Brexit. So in nearly every broadcast about Brexit, the BBC ends with an interpretation or synthesis of the apparent chaos by these two journalists. What is the state of play in the UK Parliament? Go to Laura. What are the 27 nations of the EU thinking about the latest proposal? Go to Katya. 

These journalists are not news readers, or anchors. They have no obligation to simply report what the key actors have said. In fact, they very seldom indicate whom they have spoken with. Presumably, they have spoken to the key sources, so at the end of the day, they can authoritatively report their synthesis of what is going on for the people of Britain. 

Laura Kuenssberg usually reports in or around Parliament, and Katya Adler usually reports from some vacant lot or empty mall in the midst of buildings in Brussels. For example, Katya might say, in less than a few minutes, that in speaking with leaders in the EU’s 27 nations, that they will support a delay. No attribution. No one is standing with them who could refute their views. They are the authority. They are the synthesis. 

And their views do not even nod to neutrality, or reporting. Their syntheses of whomever in the world they have consulted or spoken to is presented as their authoritative views. They are not partisan political actors, but neutral journalists, which makes their viewpoints more powerful. But, of course, their views are anything but neutral and are shaping the future of Brexit. 

How much more powerful could journalists be? How could the public put up with this journalistic interpretation of hugely partisan debates and decisions?

Should there be a response to their pronouncements? On Twitter, and other social media, you might well find corrections of errors of fact and interpretation by these commentators, but the public only watches TV. For example, I have never heard a criticism of any interpretation by any of these editors by another BBC journalist.

Surely the BBC and its editors have to be more sensitive to the influence of their statements. They are great communicators, and journalists, but they are too powerful for our own good. 

The Politics of Language

The language of day-to-day politics in the news and in legislative bodies, such as the UK parliament, has been so vitriolic, such as around the Brexit debate from 2016, that many have been stopped listening. It can be toxic to some, while energising to others. I should add that I would single out no one, as this has been a phenomenon that crosses political parties, nations, and individuals. It seems like a trend in the use and abuse of language in politics. Why?

There are many possible explanations. There is the give and take of debate in which aggressive or insulting words evoke equivalent or ratchet up replies in a vicious cycle. There is the potential for inflammatory language to capture media attention. There are many possible reasons, but one seems to best capture for me the dynamics of what we are seeing unfold across Europe and North America – one that was long ago best characterised by an American political scientist, E. E. Schattschneider, in his short but wonderful book entitled, The Semi-Sovereign People.*

The essential notion of Schattschneider’s work is to compare politics with a spectator sport, but one in which there are major differences. Players can change the rules, for example, but even more dynamic is the potential and commonality of players switching sides. More significantly, perhaps, is the notion that spectators can come on the field and join one of the teams.

Considering these possibilities, it is obvious that if you are winning the game, you don’t want to change the rules, and you don’t want spectators to jump onto the field. Best to leave things alone if you are winning. And if two teams are in opposition, such as in parliament, it would be best to keep a low profile if both teams are winning through compromise, for example.

Alternatively, if you are losing, then there is an incentive to change the rules, which is most difficult if you are losing, or to get change the composition of the teams by getting players to switch sides, or getting spectators to come onto the field. It is risky, but you are losing anyway, and changing the teams on the field could tilt the game in your favour.

So what happens when – as in the case of Brexit debates in the UK – that no team is clearly winning. Every position is a minority position. Every team will have an incentive to change the rules, and to bring spectators onto the field. They are already losing, so each party is attempting to shake things up and change the dynamics of the politics in a way that might shift in their favour.

This seems to me to be a rational explanation of the apparently irrational politics of Brexit that is causing a national nervous breakdown in the UK.

*E. E. Schattschneider, (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Wadsworth.

Getting to No: Name-calling Politics

Every morning it seems I am stunned by any given political actor (celebrity, politician, journalist) in the UK or the USA calling another politician an idiot, a fascist, a communist, a liar, a populist, nationalist, …. the list goes on. What are they thinking?

You don’t need to have read Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In (Random House, first edition 1981) to realise that name-calling in politics is likely to end badly. It is blindingly obvious that this is not a route to agreement. So as Fisher and Ury argue, among other rules, you should focus on the problem versus the personalities involved in the dispute. Name-calling focuses everyone on the personalities in the dispute.

In the 1980s, I found that urban development conflicts were often facilitated by modeling – at that time the use of computer models of the fiscal impact of alternative development strategies (Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. Modeling as Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process, Ablex Publishing, 1985). The modelling process focused the attention of contenting actors on the assumptions and data relevant to the model – the modelling process. In some cities this worked, but not all, but when it worked, it was a classic validation of Fisher and Ury.

With respect to Brexit, there have been attempts to focus on a process, such as a referendum, then a second referendum, or general election, to resolve the conflict between the leave versus remain alternatives. So arguably, the referendum did not resolve the issue, but actually has been blamed by many for the intractable position that the UK finds itself. But what about this idea of a citizen’s jury, which has been put forward by Rory Stewart?

My view is that it would be a potentially useful input to the process, but not a route to resolving the issue of Brexit. As one of a number of efforts to get to a yes, it could surface new ideas. However, if it is consider as the way to resolve the issue, it would be too politicised to be credible.

So a focus on any particular process rather than the personalities is not a panacea. It is important to find a process that garners support, that representatives of all aspects of the issue can actually participate in, and have sufficient transparency for the public and officials to ensure that it is accountable to members of the parliament, government, and the public at large. It that respect, the suggestion of a citizen’s jury is moving in the right direction: away from name-calling and towards a focus on a process for resolving disagreement.

Maybe everyone knows how commonsensical this advice might be. So what should we think of those who insist on name-calling? Generally, when it looks like someone is behaving irrationally, it often turns out that they are focusing on a different objective. For example, they may not be trying to find a solution or resolution to a negotiation. They may be simply trying to enhance their visibility to their supporters. My impression is exactly this. The name-callers among journalists, politicians, and celebrities are primarily seeking to be liked by like-minded people in their own self-interest, and not to solve a problem in the public interest.

Modelling Creating a Process for Getting to Yes

Has Brexit Broken Parliament? No. This is Democracy!

The frustration of so many people over the machinations of the UK Parliament during the debates and votes over Brexit is understandable. So it is not surprising to see article after article, and opinion pieces piled on one another about how parliament, if not democracy itself, is broken. The GuardianJournal on 16 March notes: ‘Brexit – a niche production that brought the house down’. The Guardianon 16 March talks of the ‘UK Divided: Disbelief and anger as faith in politicians evaporates’ (p. 15). The political editor of The Guardian writes in The Observer on 17 March of ‘The Week that all but broke British politics (p. 38).’ As an American residing in Britain, I respectfully disagree.

British Parliament Debates Brexit

EU Parliament Debates Brexit

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is no doubt but that this debate is extraordinary, by British, or any liberal democratic standards. Of course, these are not normal, routine debates, but among the most serious in decades for the UK and Northern Ireland. But to say this is the democratic process at work, I am sure I will be branded an enemy of whatever position seems to be prevailing at the moment. Yet I am not evaluating the process on the basis of its likely outcome. No one knows what the outcome will be – still.

Let me explain why I believe this is democracy in a good way – not broken. First, and foremost, it is a real debate. Take a look at the British parliament and the EU parliament. Both are liberal and democratic bodies. But which looks better managed? Which looks like a more democratic process? Which looks more interactive? Given the scale of the EU parliament, the British parliament would be unworkable. But the British parliament remains the model of a democratic political body.

But, you may say, “the parties have lost control, there is no discipline”? Yes, factions have developed within the parties, and individuals seem to be following their own guidance at times. But I see this as a consequence of how serious the issues are (leading all members of parliament to inform themselves) and how much time has been devoted to the issues. In normal legislative processes, most members vote most of the time on the basis of cues. They do not have the time to read every paper on every motion or proposition put before their body. In most cases, they look for cues from their party leaders, from the committee that reports the motion, from experts in the area. In the case of Brexit, every member of parliament has had abundant time and motivation to develop their own positions on the matter. That is good in light of a classic rational model of democracy, but in the real world of politics it means that there are many individually honed and differing judgements on what to do. Therefore, it will take a great deal more time than normally expected to sort out what the collective body will decide.

However, we live in a time of live media coverage of every debate, every repositioning, motion, leak, speech, mistake, raised eyebrow, etc. In earlier days, so much of what is reported routinely today would never be seen or heard, much less broadcast live, and spread on social media. The saying that legislation is like sausage in that it often tastes good in the end, but you don’t want to see it being made. Well, we are seeing negotiations over Brexit unfolding in real time and it is not pretty, but it is what is necessary in order to find ways to accommodate multiple, intense, and firmly held opinions on the way forward. To say that this is not well managed is actually a compliment.

Somehow, whether it is this week, this year, or over decades, decisions will continue to unfold in the Brexit process, or UK-EU relationship. The process may be frustratingly slow, but the most critical issue is that the process seeks to accommodate as many interests or positions as possible and is (and is seen) as legitimate at the end of the day. Not managed. Not rammed down anyone’s throat. But led to accommodate as many individual, strong-minded parliamentarians as possible to achieve a majority – an inevitable compromise to all of the minority opinions in the mix.

In contrast, think whether you would be happy if this were brilliantly ‘managed’ and the position of any one parliamentarian reigned supreme in this process. The idea of having a citizen jury comes close to this idea of doing something, anything, to get this over with. No, the key is to ensure that the end will be the result from a truly democratic process.

Postscript

The day after I wrote this blog, the Speaker of the House of Commons ‘plunged’ the government into ‘constitutional chaos’ by stopping the Prime Minister from resubmitting her same motion to the House unless it included substantial changes. Given the many constraints on the withdrawal agreement from the EC, the DUP, and various factions of the Conservative party, this threw a proverbial wrench into the machinery of the legislative process. But it brought home the degree that Brexit will be the outcome of an ecology of many games being simultaneously played by actors competing and cooperating to achieve a variety of other goals. And in contrast to board or parlour games, in the real world ecology of games, players can sometimes change the rules, as Speaker John Bercow did by invoking his interpretation of a rule from the 17th century. But this is democracy. It is how it works.

Brexit and The Border: Must Read

As an American in Britain, the history and issues surrounding the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has seemed to be too complex to even try to unravel. However, I was pleasantly surprised by Diarmaid Ferriter’s book, entitled, no less, The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics.* The author is a professor at University College Dublin, and a columnist for the Irish Times.

He has written a short and accessible book, seven chapters, 144 pages, that is succinct and authoritative. By using the border as a focus for looking at the history of Anglo-Irish relationships, he is able to illuminates key decisions in their history and clarify the ecology of choices that shaped the partitioning and the present border. For example, after reading Ferriter’s history, I find it difficult to accept current discussions of a ‘hard border’ as if one ever really existed, when “no less than 180 roads crossed the border” (p. 10). The physical border was always porous, but it became a focus for conflict. Likewise, his history brings out the overwhelming centrality of issues over national sovereignty relative to all other issues – in demanding Irish self-government – to the four-decade long struggle that led to the partitioning.

I do not pretend to be a historian of Anglo-Irish relations, and being relatively ignorant of so much of this history, I found the body of the book to be most informative as well as insightful.

One weakness from my perspective was the concluding chapter which turned to Brexit. It seemed to be less closely tied to his historical treatment than I had hoped it would be, and more embedded in the current lines of factional debates. Nevertheless, I think anyone with a serious interest in Brexit and the border issue will find the book to be a basis for a better understanding of today’s debates. I would be happy to hear recommendations for further reading, but from my perspective, it is must reading.

Source: Irishcentral.com

*Ferriter, Diarmaid (2019), The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics. London: Profile Books.

Getting to a Brexit Strategy: Focus on the Process

Press coverage of Brexit negotiations is focused on the politicians in support of different exit strategies, from a no-deal Brexit to no Brexit at all. As one consequence, the debate then focuses on whose right or wrong and why. All very newsworthy, but not an approach to reaching any consensus on the approach the UK or the EU should take. It is an approach to cementing divisions.

In today’s climate of polarization, and the normalization of hate from each side, it might be difficult to recall, or even give some thought to, a literature focused on resolving differences of opinion. One of my favorite treatments of this issue was a book entitled ‘Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Program on Negotiation  (Fisher, Ury and Patton 2011 [1981]). It spoke to the processes likely to support a negotiated resolution of conflicting positions, which identified some general rules that could help reach a consensus on contentious issues, such as focusing on the interests of different stakeholders rather than their positions in the debate – whose right and whose wrong.

Decades ago, I read this book when puzzling over how to make sense of my study of how computer models were being used in the policy process (Dutton 1982; Dutton and Kraemer 1984). My colleagues and I were looking at how computer models were shaping urban development decisions in the US, since local governments were adopting models that purported to project the fiscal impact of alternative decisions, such as urban infill versus sprawl. Such decisions were in no way as major as Brexit, but they were nevertheless very contentious, promising to reshape everything from the economic vitality of the city to the racial composition of neighborhoods.

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My colleagues and I were skeptical of the role that models could play in such a contentious process. We realized it was naïve to expect models to simply enable a more rational decision by providing more reliable forecasts of the outcomes of different alternatives. At the same time, we were not convinced that modeling was simply a tool for supporting partisan political decisions, using models to provide support to positions and decisions that had already been made.

What we found was far more interesting. The modeling process was inherently political, but political in ways that helped the contending parties to reach a negotiated consensus on the likely outcome and therefore to help reach a decision. For instance, the modeling process helped focus debate on the assumptions of the model, rather than on the positions of parties to the debate. Stakeholders began to focus on what outcomes should be forecast, rather than which decision they supported. In such ways, the modeling process provided a boundary spanning object and a process for stakeholders to understand the likely outcome of alternative decisions.

The success of this approach was evident is some unanticipated consequences. For example, by the time the modeling process was near completion, all the stakeholders tended to agree on the likely outcomes. This was so much the case that no one was really interested in reading the final report – the stakeholders already knew what should be done. If all the major stakeholders are represented in the modeling process, then they are brought along through this process such that the final report is old news.

My sense from a distance – informed only by press coverage – is that the proponents of different Brexit strategies are marshalling evidence and arguments for their own positions. They are not sitting around the same table trying to understand the likely outcomes of alternative strategies. Getting the right stakeholders within and across the EU and UK around a single modeling process could be one way to gain some level of consensus on the most sensible way forward.

A major limitation of such an approach is the degree that democratic and ethical concerns can be more critical than information about the outcomes of any decision. However, at this moment, most debate is focused on the Brexit strategy, and not whether or not to exit the EU, which is the decision most fraught over respecting the outcome of democratic process, regardless of the purported outcomes. So to the degree that this remains the case, and the focus remains on strategies for exiting the EU, then all parties in the EU and the UK should have a major stake in getting to yes.

References

Dutton, W. H. (1982), ‘Computer Models in the Policy-Making Process,’ Information Age, 1 (2), 86-94.

Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. (1985), Modeling as Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Fisher, R., Ury, W., Patton, B. (2011) [1981]. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (3rd ed.). New York: Penguin Books.