Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Fun and games

I first came across game theory in international relations many years ago. It described the actions of states in terms of rational calculation and behaviour. It has one flaw in explaining the world. If you studied history you would see that states didn't do this. I always felt that it was a theory that failed its empirical tests. I thought it was ludicrously reductionist.

It's floated around economics for a while, but I am not an economist, so can't really comment. However, two devotees of game theory have come to prominence in politics recently. Ianis Varoufakis was one (that went well, didn't it?). And now we have Dominic Cummings driving Brexit strategy. That strategy seems divorced from consequences. The aim is to win, regardless of what is won, or of the collateral damage done on the way. It is amoral in the extreme.

The encouraging thing is that this ruthless pursuit of victory has so far produced nothing but defeats. There is one problem, though. This game only requires one win, the important one. If this were a football league, Johnson could lose every match apart from the last one and still be crowned champion. This might happen yet.

The tactics are simple, the indiscriminate use of the professional foul. The main means is dishonesty. 'Getting Brexit done,' is the latest one. It promises closure while glossing over the years of negotiation from a position of weakness that will dominate politics for years to come. Going over the ball to smash studs into the shins of Parliament is normal practice. The referee - the legal system and constitutional law - is subject to continuous abuse and harassment. The fans are vociferous. The Ultras of the right-wing press, unfurl their banners and scream their taunts at the opponents.The ordinary fans join in and stay loyal throughout. Nobody notices that their numbers are diminishing, what matters is noise. The larger opposition is quieter and more sportsmanlike. Party loyalty is trumping the national interest.

If they do win, there will be a moment of triumph. The trophy will be lifted to the roars of their fans, and the muttered hatred of everyone else. They will face the consequences of their victory - opprobrium and eventual relegation. The game itself will be damaged as foul tactics will have been legitimised. But still, that trophy will be in the cabinet.

The trouble is, politics is not a game. It's the way that we manage our public lives. The rules are important. Policies have real impacts on real lives. Brexit is not a prize. It is the complete resetting of our economics and of our international relations. It has huge consequences for people's lives. The evidence is unequivocal. It will damage the UK economy. People will lose out. It will hurt British citizens in the EU (like ones with a house in Greece!). It will endanger peace in Northern Ireland. It does risk the future of Gibraltar. It does threaten the Union. What's more, two years of polling shows a consistent majority for remaining in the EU. We have the largest pro-European movement on the continent. Remain can bring a million people on to the streets, Leave a few hundred at best. It needs careful consideration, not a sporting contest to decide it.

Brexit is the obsession of small groups of sectarian political hobbyists of left and right. It always was a fringe belief of little relevance to most people. But it was the Conservative party that kept it alive and brought it on us through a monstrous miscalculation by Cameron. It has died as a meaningful policy. But the corpse is still twitching. This is its last chance. Within a short time it would have been buried with a stake through its heart. The irony is that the cup may be paraded in the decaying hands of a zombie.

1 comment:

AndyH said...

Here, here. Agree with everything you say here Peter. We live in sorry times.