Brexit: an irrational act hoping for a rational response?

david-davis-2Since the ‘Brexit is Brexit’ government was put into place last week by new Prime Minister Theresa May, there has been a fair bit of talk about how rational the EU will be in negotiating.  We heard much during the campaign about the bosses of BMW and Mercedes insisting to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel that they would need to continue to sell cars into the UK.  The new Brexit minister David Davis told the Independent this week that his negotiations about the residence rights of EU citizens in the UK would be ”based on the presumption that they [the EU] will be rational about their own citizens interest, which they will be”. 

This assumption of rationality is a nod back to Enlightenment values – the 18th century effort to challenge traditional systems of power, tradition and religion with logic and science.  At the time it was, ironically, a pan-European movement with British contributors (notably John Locke, David Hume and Mary Wollstonecraft ) alongside French and German writers including Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau.  From this basis, Adam Smith became a key founder of economics, still hugely influential today. 

So, of course we might assume that the EU will be rational in their negotiations.  There is one snag with this argument: the Brexit saga is, thus far at least, a blazing advertisement for the limits of rationality in politics. 

The Remain campaign bombarded voters with the predictions of economists, business people, academics and others that Brexit would be an economic shock, costing the British economy something between 1.5 and 3% of GDP.  There would be disruption and uncertainty, new stresses on the Union with potentially conflicting wishes from the UK nations.  Those coming to the UK’s shores from other EU states were shown to be helping and supporting the economy, not taking from it.  And yet, 52% of voters shunned their rational interests and decided instead to ‘take back control’. 

Sovereignty is a political, not a rational, choice.  In a modern, interconnected and interdependent world, all nations choose to share some elements of their self-determination with others in pursuit of better outcomes for their citizens.  Even the shunned Marxist North Korea is a member of the United Nations – it being better to be at the world’s top diplomatic table and abide by its rules than to be a total outcast.  

There is a question of costs and benefits, of course.  It seems that the UK is choosing to reduce GDP, to potentially shut off a valuable source of labour and growth, to jeopardise long-standing academic and trading relationships – for some as-yet-imaginary benefit of ‘not having to do what Brussels tells us’.  (The fact that we were also in Brussels, agreeing what to tell ourselves, is another piece of this Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass confusion, which must wait for another time.)

So, we await to see if our former European partners will respond rationally to Brexit.  Having given the UK either a new privileged status in Europe (as many across the channel would say) or insulted us with their ‘thin gruel’ (as the oleaginous Jacob Rees-Mogg would say), only to see it rejected in the strongest possible way, the EU 27 could be forgiven for setting aside their rationality in defence of their own political project, the single market.  David Davis, Boris Johnson and others have claimed that in the end, rationality will prevail and the EU will see the sense of breaking their own cherished rules to do the UK a favour.  In the current climate, with the EU wounded by Brexit and the UK in the grip of irrational jingoism, I’m not holding my breath. 

Note to the 48%: Why Brexit may not mean Brexit

May clappingUPDATE: Thursday 14 July 2016.  The post below was written on Monday 11 July, and things seem to be passing out in much the way I was predicting.  Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary has taken many by surprise, and her general positioning of Brexiteers in senior Brexit-related roles is a way to endure that when the complexities of the situation start to appear there can be no claim that those involved didn’t have their hearts in it.  Messages from Phillip Hammond and retired civil servant on Radio 4 Today this morning both stressing the need to take it slowly.  We still have no idea what Brexit means – apart from Brexit.

We are all getting up this morning in (yet another) politically new world.  Today’s news is that Theresa May is leader of the Conservative Party and will soon be Prime Minister.  She is pictured on the right, apparently getting ready to lead her party colleagues in a bout of Icelandic clapping*.  Mrs May faces a tough few days getting her government together, and then a tougher few months and years untangled the mess into which the UK has allowed itself to slide.

One of Theresa May’s key statements so far has been ‘Brexit means Brexit’.  To those of us who fought (and continue to fight) for Remain, this sounds like a death knell.  Even though she was (nominally, anyway) on the side of Remain in the great ludicrous EU referendum of 2016, she was lukewarm on the subject and even proposed abandoning the European Convention on Human Rights (even though that would appear to involve leaving the EU, bizarrely).  However, all the main Tory Leavers have assassinated each other, and so Mrs May is probably the least worst person to step in at this stage.

The sudden withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom yesterday seems to have marked the end of the more ludicrous versions of Brexit.  The ashen-faced men in suits surrounding Mrs Leadsom on the doorstep of her campaign headquarters yesterday were ashen-faced for good reason.  Their dream of broadly ‘doing a Farage’, quickly triggering Article 50 and embarking on a Patrick Minford-inspired buccaneering future on the high seas of tariff-free trade have just vanished.  The arrival of Mrs May holds out the hope allowing the wave of Leave enthusiasm to break and dissipate its force onto the stony beach of reality.

So, what is Theresa May saying when she says ‘Brexit means Brexit’?  A few thoughts:

  1.  At this moment, she has to sound tough.  She can’t possibly make any reversing noises at this moment (and for quite a while).  To immediately start backtracking, looking at second referendums, etc would be politically impossible right now and in the foreseeable future.
  2. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is, when you look at it, the least controversial thing that she can say.  I am, amongst other things, a visiting research fellow in Philosophy at a British university and this statement is as close to meaningless as anything could be.  It must be true, by definition.  How could it not be?  (Indeed, any statement that ‘Brexit means not-Brexit’ would be even more crazy, leading us into a pit of paradox.)
  3. The harder part now, of course, is to expand on what Brexit means, apart from (obviously) Brexit.  I am expecting Mrs May to be making a lot of noise about starting this process in earnest in the coming days.  A new government department, perhaps?  Cabinet Minister with responsibility for Brexit?  Even some kind of commission or inquiry, co-ordinated by select committees?  There will be a lot of noise about ‘getting on with it’.
  4. So, how come this should not be viewed as dispiriting for the 48%?  The clue, as ever, comes from that Whitehall insider Sir Humphrey Appleby (from TV’s Yes Minister in the 1980s).  In this case it’s not actually Sir Humphrey, it’s his boss Sir Arnold who is Cabinet Secretary, who in the very first episode ‘Open Government’ expounds on the law of Inverse Relevance: : “The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it.”
  5. So, expect to see a great deal of talking about it in the coming days and weeks.  That’s not, strange as it may seem, a bad sign.  And Mrs May will certainly be getting things set up.  However, when the new ministers get to their desks late this week, they will be greeted by civil servants clutching huge piles of paper – things in every department that will need to be untangled for Brexit to happen.  Farmers wanting their payments, fishermen wanting their fish, research programmes, medical profession standards, food import/export – this list is endless and reaches into every corner of government.

When the task of Brexit becomes clearer – then we might start to get a handle on what Brexit means.  And it may or may not mean big Brexit.  It may mean very small Brexit indeed.

*hat tip David Baddiel.

You can enjoy the clip about the law of Inverse Relevance below:

The language of Brexit (1): Aphosasis, pink elephants and bargaining chips

pinkelephantAs a professional coach, leadership consultant, trainer of coaches and speakers (but not a mother :-)), I have learned a bit over the past three decades about how language works – how we can use language to focus or diffuse attention, to suggest ideas without saying them, to channel peoples’ thinking in certain ways.  This is the first in a series of posts about the language we are seeing in post-Brexit Britain.

During her interview with the Times, published yesterday, Andrea Leadsom says (transcript here):

So, really carefully, because I am sure, I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’, because I think that would be really horrible but, genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

Look at the bit where she says “I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t'”.  It sounds as if she is making a humane point and wanting a fair debate.  However, in raising the issue at all she has succeeded in bringing into the conversation.  As I write, many people are accusing her of incompetence and inexperience in this move, while a few are saying that she is not naïve and well intended to do it.

The posh name for this aspect of rhetoric is aphosasis – bringing something up while denying it or denying that it should be brought up.  Why is this such a powerful device? Surely when someone says that something doesn’t matter, then they should be taken at their word?  Let’s look at what happens here.

When someone says ‘this is not a factor’ then we have to think of the factor in order to work out what is ‘not being said’. The classical example used in many trainings is “don’t think of a pink elephant”… which gets everyone thinking of pink elephants immediately.  Try it for yourself – oh yes, you just did.  See what I mean?  We can’t just ‘not think of something’, we need to think of it in order to work out what not to think about.

What has gone less widely reported is that Leadsom used a similar device earlier in the week.  In a discussion of the future residence rights of those from other EU countries, Theresa May said that this couldn’t be guaranteed at this time.   Leadsom promptly issued a statement saying that “We must give them certainty, there is no way they will be bargaining chips in our negotiations”.   So, Leadsom was the first to use the term ‘bargaining chips’, once again in by way of aphosasis, by saying that’s NOT what was happening.

This use of the term ‘bargaining chips’ was picked up and used widely by many other politicians and commentators. In fact, some think that Theresa May actually used it.  One of my colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, philosophy professor Constantine Sandis, tweeted ‘Theresa May just called me a bargaining chip 😂 — Constantine Sandis (@csandis) July 4, 2016.  That’s the image we’re left with – but she didn’t call anyone a bargaining chip.  Andrea Leadsom said that he WASN’T a bargaining chip.  See how it works?

The jury is still out on whether Mrs Leadsom is a skilled user of language or a naïve beginner in the world of top-line politics.  The results of the Tory leadership contest are not due until 9th September – so we have a boggling two more months to find out.

Mark McKergow is an international speaker, coach, teacher and author, and is a visiting research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.  Find out more about his work at and

Bizarre: Owen Paterson claims EU referendum is “the biggest majority in history”

owenpatersonOn BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour (Sunday 3 July 2016), Owen Paterson MP claimed that the EU referendum was “the biggest majority in history”, therefore “over-riding pretty much everything” in terms of parliamentary process.  You can hear him doing it by going to the link above, and listening at 34:05.

Even in an era of post-truth politics, this claim is embarrassingly easy to debunk.  The UK doesn’t have many referendums – three national votes so far.  (The Scottish independence referendum was not, of course, UK-wide.)  These were the original EEC referendum in 1975, the AV voting referendum of 2011 and the EU referendum of 2016.  And here are the results:

1975 EEC referendum

  • Yes: 17,378,581
  • No:  8,470,073
  • Majority: 8,908,508

2011 AV voting referendum

  • Yes: 6,152,607
  • No: 13,013,123
  • Majority: 6,860,516

2016 EU referendum

  • Remain: 16,141,241
  • Leave: 17,410,742
  • Majority: 1,269,501

Far from being the ‘biggest majority in history’, the recent EU referendum is definitely ‘the smallest majority in history’ (assuming that history is of UK referendums).  It’s a majority, no doubt about that.  We’ll come back to the fact that this smallest majority in history was built on deception and misinformation by a small group of press barons and careerist politicians another time.

I suppose that Paterson might be claiming that the Leave vote was the biggest vote in UK referendum history. As you can see from the figures above, it’s true that the number of votes for Leave is the biggest in the table – some 17,410,000 compared to 1975’s Yes total of around 17,378,000.  However, the electorate is bigger now (around 46,500,000) than it was at the time of the 1975 EEC referendum (just over 40,000,000), so one could argue that the Leave campaign gained less support than the Yes campaign in 1975.

Leave, then negotiate. Stupid, yes – for a good reason

HomerSimpsonTory leadership candidate Dr Liam Fox described the process laid out in Article 50 as ‘stupid’.  Yes, he’s right – it’s a dreadful way to go about things.  The EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom described this sequence of events yesterday. Dr Fox further described this as ‘her position’, as if a bit of posturing and stamping of feet might change it.  Erm… It’s not ‘her position’, it’s the process as laid down in the famous Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which we’ve agreed to.

Dr Fox is right in one thing – this sequence of events is indeed stupid.  It’s clearly intended to be stupid.  So stupid that no country in their right mind would ever enter the process.  It places the Leaver at a huge disadvantage, having to make the fundamental choice of exit before anything is known about the actual terms.  It is aimed at ensuring that, while it’s possible to leave, the doorway leads to a dark and uncertain place.

Dr Fox seems to think that we can somehow change this.  He’s wrong.  Changing it would require a change to the Lisbon treaty itself, which then constitutionally requires referendums in many EU countries who may not be minded just at this moment to take up their valuable time for another power who has just kicked them in the teeth.