Wednesday, 28 November 2018

A glimmer of sunlight for Britain and for Labour

Image result for images sunlightThe first thing to observe about the current political situation in Britain is that it is incredibly difficult to predict. At every point of the mathematical decision tree, there are unknowns and strange distortions (more of that later).

So the starting point for us, like Sophocles, is this: the only thing we know is that we know nothing. And the one thing which is usually true about politics is when there is an “everyone knows that…” conventional wisdom, it is more often than not completely wrong. Whoever would have predicted the success of Donald Trump? Or John Major, or Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter?

That said, if we look incrementally at what has changed in the last ten days, it would seem that Britain, and Labour, are both in a slightly better place.

First, Britain: whether you are a Leaver or a Remainer, unless you are frothing at the mouth, you cannot be looking at a no-deal Brexit as an attractive outcome for the country.

Therefore, the fact that Theresa May has finally, two years into her premiership, dared to put “no Brexit” back on the table, augurs well for moderates in both camps.

If Chequers succeeds, which looks increasingly unlikely (both from the UK side and taking into account the difficulty of ratification across each of 27 countries, such as Spain and Ireland), at least Britain has a “least worst” route to Brexit which will cause only modest harm to the economy.

Now let us look at what happens if Chequers fails.

If you are a Remainer, May’s statement is a matter for some contentment: whether or not No Brexit is achievable, it is at least now acknowledge to be possible (as, of course, it always was if we wanted it – European leaders have been at pains to say they would really like Britain not to leave, even now). If Chequers dies, there is now at least the chance that the country will, staring into the abyss, decide that it must have a People’s Vote and, perhaps, vote to stay.

If you are a moderate Leaver – that is, neither of the Corbynite nor ERG variety – you will realise, although perhaps through gritted teeth, that however much you wanted Britain to leave, this is really not what you signed up for and, if Chequers dies and the choice reduces to this or No Deal, you would probably not choose economic suicide and therefore vote for staying in (or, at least, abstain). In theory, of course, the government has the option to propose another deal but, in practice, what would that be, if they couldn’t get this one to work after two years?

In other words, if MPs are rational beings (a stretch, perhaps, but stay with me on this one) they will not choose the madness of something no developed country has ever tried in modern times: a sudden jolt to a scenario of practically no trade deals and an abysmal negotiating position to get any. It is an Armageddon scenario where a properly-negotiated Brexit might merely have been suboptimal. Now for the nerdy bit.

A decision tree marks a network of possible outcomes, a value for each and a probability of each. You navigate your way through the tree by events that happen. In the massively complicated decision tree of “Brexit: negotiated, no or No Deal?”, for example, which way a parliamentary vote goes, general election, change of PM, public opinion change, etc. all count.

Now, it is reasonable to assume that, no matter how stupid and/or craven the worst of our MPs might be, that only the real dogmatists on left and right would vote for No Deal. For example, the moderate Caroline Flints of this world, who take the opinion that they cannot support a People’s Vote because The People Have Spoken Already, would surely not say the same if the options were No Deal Brexit or No Brexit.

Proposition: No Deal is actually unthinkable. Because you would have to go against all sensible logic, the advice of business, all your major trading partners without exception, all living British Prime Ministers, trade unions, and presumably almost all macro- and microeconomists.

In this decision tree, in other words, the value of the No Deal outcome should be “minus infinity” or, at least, minus a large number. Now, the problem with such outcomes is that they distort the decision tree. For example, in a tree for hostage negotiation or healthcare strategy, you might take the loss of any human life as “minus infinity”. But it can’t be, because then you can’t make any calculations at all and it all gets a bit, well, silly. So this is why it’s interesting: if your Armageddon is a really big negative outcome, it will distort the calculations of the others.*

In short, you might think of No Deal as like having a nuclear weapon. No sensible person would propose ever to use it, but it doesn’t half shape the debate. That distortion is a big part of what makes this whole thing so madly impossible to predict. Normal logic is suspended.

After all this, we come to the second thought: May’s inclusion of “No Brexit” and the potential for failure of Chequers is good for Labour.

Why? It leaves a disingenuous Corbyn exposed. If he has a choice of No Deal Brexit or Remain (or, People’s Vote leading to Remain), he is forced to choose. It is almost unthinkable he will choose Remain, because he is a dogmatist, not a pragmatist (and even John McDonnell is gradually shifting course on People’s Vote; not because he is a pragmatist but because he is a dogmatist pretending to be a pragmatist. It could also be the perfect way for him to defenestrate Corbyn).

And so Corbyn would be exposed as such for all to see, in a party where the vast majority of members are Remainers (even though many of the wider supporter base may be Leavers, especially in the North). It could easily be the end of him.

So, there is modest good news for moderate thinkers across Britain, especially in Labour; despite living in political times whose mercurial unpredictability seems more comparable to that of revolutionary France than dull old post-war Europe.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

*Incidentally, heaven knows how the resident eggheads in the Pentagon used Game Theory in the Cold War for a similar simulation, because there the outcome is really the same distortion, if you value the outcome of real nuclear war as minus infinity. One suspects therefore that they substituted finite negative outcomes for infinite ones and therefore treated people at least to some extent as expendable, which is a little scary. But we digress.

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