WARNING – I’m cross and may well also be imperious and condescending in what follows.
Hard problems are hard. They can be complex, sophisticated and often intractable. I work in an environment where projects typically take months or years from start to finish and involve dozens of people from multiple groups – many of which have conflicting aims and agendas. My main role is to bring these people together and keep them together throughout the time necessary to get complicated, difficult projects done and to find ways to reconcile many situations where there’s no good answer, where someone doesn’t get their way (or multiple people).
I say the above not to sound great but because my experience of the world is framed from this kind of experience I tend to assume everyone else views the world this way. I realise, if only from watching people’s responses to the Brexit process that most people don’t live this kind of experience.
This week Hansard published a report suggesting that a growing number of people would settle for a strong leader, a benign dictator if you will and after I’d stopped despairing I wondered why people might be feeling like that.
I was reminded of a number of conversations I’ve had about how parliament has operated in the first quarter of 2019. Many, many people I come across are despairing of how the Brexit process has gone – they lament the foolishness, the self-centredness and apparent dimwittedness of our parliamentarians.
I want to propose a counterpoint to this – as part of a larger discussion about difficult subjects being difficult. From my perspective parliament has done exactly what it should have done through this process. It has taken on what is a very, very hard problem – how to deliver something most people don’t want and just as many people don’t understand and a similar number can’t say what they want. In taking this on, Parliament has, in my view, adequately reflected the country and the constitution has performed admirably. It has held off an executive which has authoritarian tendencies (if one is being generous one might suggest this is driven by frustration at the challenge of the problem). It has been unable to make up its mind – which if one reflects on just how close the vote was is pretty reasonable. It has broken along the lines of the issue – not ideology (although that has driven individual pockets of action). All in all, our system has delivered to us exactly what it’s designed for – representation. You might think it should deliver what you want, or perhaps ANY decision – but that would be its failure.
BUT I think there’s more to say on this. Brexit, like many technically hard problems (and I mean that in the philosophical sense in which there may be no answer we can derive that we can know to be optimal or even satisfactory) is a challenge for which there isn’t an easy answer.
I have witnessed over the last few months a growing demand that someone ‘DO SOMETHING ALREADY’. I want to push back against you if this is your feeling. You are wrong to ask for this. Not only that, but you are endangering the very systems designed to ensure we make the best decisions we can. You might complain about the people engaging in solving our problems as being venal, corrupt, imperfect or worse. Fine, that’s probably true to a greater or lesser degree. However, you are wrong to suppose those elements are the sole driving forces behind the apparent chaos of the process we are witnessing.
We are witnessing this process through a glass darkly. 24 news cycles might suggest we have insight into what’s going on but we really don’t. We’re as far from seeing what’s being calculated as we ever were. Distance has been replaced by obfuscation – leaving us right where we started before continuous coverage. It is a mistake to think that because you’ve read about it you have any real idea of what’s behind decisions presented to us.
Secondly, people are flawed. However, they’re no more flawed than you. If you think otherwise, I’ll show you someone with the really dangerous flaw of not having any self-awareness. The systems we generally agree make for good decision making factor these in – not to rule those foibles out but to ensure they have as little impact as possible. All people try to find ways around these rules (whether you’re illegally downloading music, speeding or deciding on a hostile immigration environment, the calculus is strikingly similar). The rules exist to hold us back, yes, but they also help us avoid the mistakes others have made or foreseen could occur without them.
Thirdly – solving hard problems takes time. No one person can resolve them, no simple answer will unlock them and no short-cut will deliver what you want without hurting everyone else. The art of diplomacy is helping everyone win when everyone knows they won’t like such an outcome. It’s why negotiating trade deals, climate change agreements and large commercial contracts take years to close. People work hard throughout that period in small incremental steps not because they’re slacking but because THIS IS THE ONLY WAY to success.
The excuse that people are tired of the process is really an admission that they themselves aren’t really capable of engaging in the same level of depth. At best it’s a failure of imagination wrt how difficult problems can be and at worst it’s an arrogance nearly always unsupported by that person’s own life achievements (and yes, I am being deliberately dismissive).
The complaint that those involved are morons…well it’s harder to argue that’s at least partly true. However, it is also often a shorthand for saying the problem’s simple and we should get on with it…by which we mean the world should like we want it to and no one else matters. This is a selfish, shortsighted view and one I have time for than being ‘tired’ of the whole thing.
The idea that simply refusing to compromise will win the day? Sigh. It does explain why so many families have kith and kin to whom they’ve not spoken to for years. Even if you can get away with such relationship destroying misery…well good luck next time and good luck when you need someone else to aid you.
So…long story short. Please relish this process, or at the very least understand it is very, very hard and what we’re witnessing are our systems working very hard to manage that somehow. British democracy is working well. British politics is being disrupted and tired ideologies on both left and right are being torn to shreds. These are all good things and we would really run a mile from morons who say ‘if we had a monarch in charge it would be better.’
I like open democracy. I dislike monarchies of all forms and the Sultan of Brunei should remind us just how dangerous they really are. Soooo, could we all agree that open democracies are worth cherishing and protecting from their detractors?