The game of chess has a wonderful word in it: zugzwang. It is a German word, which describes the situation in which one has “a disagreeable obligation to move.” Any move, in other words, worsens the position.
For some reason this came to mind while following the Brexit moves over the course of the last week, and then again when I’d heard that Theresa May and David Davis had had to go to Brussels for pre-dawn meetings to fit in with the busy schedules of Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk.
Here are some quick notes on all of this. Some of these are obvious to anyone who has been paying attention (which broadly excludes most of the Conservative party).
1. The EU is good at negotiating…
You can’t out-negotiate the EU. One of the reasons for this is that—given it’s a 28 country institution going on 27—negotiation is the only thing it does most of the time. So, on each of the substantive issues so far, the UK has blustered and the EU has won. It’s a bit like watching a club level chess player going into a game with an International Master or Grand Master and suddenly discovering after the routine of the opening moves that they are in a hopeless position. And this has, so far, been the easy part of the game.
2. … because it looks after its own
One of the reasons the EU hangs together is that it listens to its members and represents their interests when they conflict with others. In the current EU world, Ireland always trumps the UK. The EU wasn’t going to do anything that created the possibility of a hard border between the North and South. (Incidentally, I read pieces a few weeks ago that said that Ireland’s hardball position on the border was somehow undermined by the balance of public opinion in the North. Wrong: the audience for Ireland’s position was the other EU leaders and the EU negotiating team. In fact, the Conservatives keep making the mistake of thinking that public opinion matters.)
3. Ireland’s position was entirely predictable
I’m not going to spend time on this, since it is entirely obvious, but it ought to have passed the attention of Downing Street and the rest of them that the Irish Constitution contains an aspiration towards a united Ireland that used to be completely hard line and was toned down a bit as a concession as part of the Good Friday Agreement. The change had to be agreed by referendum. And that Ireland’s main political parties were formed around their positions towards the civil war that followed Ireland’s independence. The most trivial analysis of actor interests tells you that no Irish politician could agree to a hard border with the north, and remain in politics.
4. All of May’s options were bad
What this means is that May’s position was zugswang, caught between Ireland, the government’s DUP “partners,” and the hard Brexiteers in the Cabinet and the press. Of course, she’d made all of this worse for herself with unhelpful talk of “red lines” earlier on, and the timing of the moving of Article 50, both designed with party in mind, rather than UK interests. Ian Dunt walked through May’s options this in excellent detail, but in summary, they were:
- Keep going with the Hard Brexit model, with the re-formation of the hard border between the north and south of Ireland, and have the EU decline to move on to the trade talks;
- Try to square the EU by moving the customs border into the sea, and have the DUP bring down the government;
- Move away from the Hard Brexit position, but in such a way that the barking Eurosceptics didn’t have enough rope to hang her.
4. The politics of indecision
For May the third option is the least worst of these three bad options, and it’s also in the interests of the EU as well, so it has played ball by praising her political skills to give her some cover and inventing a phrase—”regulatory alignment“—that lets her be vague for a bit longer. It is the least worst for several reasons. One of the reasons is that it leaves everything open for the time being; for all the talk about politics being about making decisions, often, especially when it comes to internal party politics, the best thing to do is not to force a decision. Of course, everyone else knows this as well, which is why the hard right are already on manoeuvres.
5. The weakening Brexit position
Among the other reasons why it is the least worst option is that it is the only option on which May might get support from Labour and the SNP if the hard wing of the Conservative party tried to force the matter. (Of course, this is not a great position for a party leader to be in, especially since the Opposition parties might leave her to swing if they thought the alternative was collapsing the government). It is also becoming clearer that the consequences of a Brexit without reasonable levels of migration are not good for the economy, the health service, fruit picking, the state of Britain’s university research, soft power, etc etc, however much experts gets derided for pointing these things out. (Of course, the reason for the timing of Friday morning’s meeting was because Junker had to fly to Japan to sign a vast trade deal).
Third, the “no-deal” option is clearly a fantasy, as was pointed out recently by a Parliamentary committee. Fourth, the pro-Brexit ministers are looking more shambolic by the moment: David Davis has had a terrible week, Liam Fox looks more and more like he’s signifying nothing, Boris is now completely visibly incompetent, even to the Conservative press. In other words, there’s still a chance that by the time she has to deal with them, they will be completely discredited, at least outside of the Express and the Murdoch newspapers.
6. Dying off
Of course, the longer it goes on, the notional Brexit “majority” dies off (I mean this absolutely literally), and the large costs of getting to a deal that’s clearly worse than continuing membership of the EU become more visible. At the moment I can’t see the event that allows politicians to break with the “will of the people” schtick about the referendum, and start saying this, but maybe that doesn’t matter. One of the things that I have learnt from futures work is that trends have a habit of configuring events in unexpected ways. The collapse of UKIP and its vote also means that Labour MPs are less worried about those of their supporters and voters who also voted Brexit. This was probably over-stated as a problem, looking at the numbers, either because politicians are prone to unthought-through hysteria about such things or because the PLP was using it as a stick to beat Corbyn. Maybe we have to leave and then rejoin again once the Imperial fantasists have isolated themselves.
7. British exceptionalism
One of the elements of this that was mentioned to me by Ian Christie is the extent to which the Brexiteers suffer from a misplaced sense of British exceptionalism. This is doubtless a legacy of Empire (see the discussion of Churchill, below), but from the outside it looks only like a misplaced sense of cultural superiority. Top Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith might be an exemplar of this: this is the man who told Channel 4 News that Ireland was playing hardball on the border issue because there was a Presidential election coming up. (Wrong at level of fact and interpretation.)
This evident sense of effortless superiority may be one of the reasons why the British have so far neglected to prepare for any of the negotiations in any meaningful way. Or, come to that, have wasted so much time and political capital on what amounted to the opening moves. Brendan Behan’s satirical song ‘The Captain and the Kings‘ strikes a chord here.
By the moon that shines above us in the misty morning night
Let us cease to run ourselves down and praise God that we are white
And better still are English, tea and toast and muffin rings
One of the curiosities to me of all of this is that having spent a lifetime watching the left suffer from magical thinking, which is always a sign of weakness, is that magical thinking is now the redoubt of the hard right. Michael Clifford caught this well in the Irish Examiner: “These people are obviously highly reluctant to address the real world lest it interferes with their delusion of grandeur.” As Ian Christie noted, one of the results is that the UK is suffering from an advanced version of the “sophisticated state failure,” diagnosed in the research of Carnegie Europe.
(J D Wetherspoon alienates younger customers with his views on Brexit. Image: Wetherspoon)
8. The coming Conservative split
The endgame for this as far as the Conservatives are concerned still looks like a split party. This still comes as a surprise to those of us brought up to think of the Conservatives as ruthless political operators when it came to winning and maintaining power. I haven’t checked the numbers, but there are probably at least 60, and perhaps up to 100, who would willingly leave in protest against a soft Brexit. They are probably perfectly aligned with the views of the Conservatives’ ageing party membership, but not with anyone else.
This has a logic of its own: the whole Brexit/EU question is a fight that’s been going on in the Conservative party ever since Churchill failed to square off the EEC in the early ’50s with his 19th century view of Britain as an Imperial power. (I also mean this literally: Churchill’s political views were formed while Victoria was still on the throne.) Brexit represents the culmination of that 65 year old feud: no more fudging is possible, there’s no more road to kick the can down. As for the rest, they are probably versions of centre-right Christian Democrats who could probably re-align themselves with the Conservatives’ traditional business base, currently broadly unrepresented in the UK political system. This would all be ugly, it will go on for some time, and—to end on another useful German word—will offer endless opportunities for schadenfreude.