Brexit: Crisis and Opportunity for Britain and the EU – a Systems Perspective

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“In a multi-layered complex system stability is achieved by having the big and/or slow processes govern through constraint the smaller, faster processes. Sudden change can take place in a complex system when agents at one level escape the constraints usually exercised by agents in another part of the system.” This is a quote from my book, Learning from the Links, a systems perspective on golf and management. I was making the case that in a golf swing the big, slow muscles of the torso should constrain the smaller, faster movement of the shoulders and arms that, in their turn, should limit the even quicker movement of the hands. When the hands escape these constraints, the system becomes unstable and the result is an erratic golf swing over which one has little control.

The same principle applies to all complex systems, including political ones. The Founding Fathers ensured that this was the case in the structure of the American government when they wisely arranged the different branches of government in a systems hierarchy of constraint. The House of Representatives is elected every two years, Presidents every four years, the Senate every six years (on staggered terms) and the Supreme Court is elected for life. For similar reasons James Madison favoured representative democracy and rule by experts over direct democracy and rule by faction. The intent was to create a stable system of checks and balances that could handle only modest change and would not be subject to sudden radical movements. There are similar hierarchies of constraint in parliamentary systems. An elected House of Commons turns over much faster than an appointed Senate (in the case of Canada) and the hereditary House of Lords in the UK. The Canadian Senate is the “Chamber of Sober Second Thought”, whose role is to reconsider and modify the sometimes impulsive actions coming to it from below in the systems hierarchy.

From a systems perspective, when British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to a referendum on whether to remain with or leave the European Union he was risking that a small fast system might escape the constraints of representative democracy and the sovereignty of Parliament. It has escaped and the result is crisis and chaos. But it is also opportunity for both Britain and the EU.

The Lost Narrative of the European Union

Three years ago I gave a presentation to the International Forum on the Future of Europe in Vilnius, Lithuania. In it I suggested that the problem with the EU was that it had lost its narrative and become an anonymous, rule-driven bureaucracy of technocrats. I used an ecological perspective to show how the EU had been born in the aftermath of the Second European Thirty Year War (1914-1945) as a passionate movement to avoid further conflict among the nations of Europe. After initial success, greatly aided by the rebuilding of Europe’s shattered infrastructure (catalyzed by theMarshall Plan), it became a series of increasingly ambitious economic and political projects. In that process, however, like all successful institutions, it became much larger, more calculative, rule-driven and bureaucratic. The stories told by economists and bureaucrats are rarely compelling and, as the original narrative was lost, means became ends-in-themselves.

Economic attachments are fragile. We may work for money, but we live for story. An ecological perspective suggested that any “buy-in” would be temporary at best and that the resulting tepid commitment would fluctuate with the EU’s economic fortunes. In good times people might mildly favour the European enterprise, but in tough times they would tend to default to their national narratives and identities that are much more emotionally powerful. This is especially true if economic gains are spread unevenly and significant segments of the population feel left out and ignored. The result was widespread euroscepticism that, as Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) proclaimed, was all about national identity.  The Brexit Referendum became a contest between technicians in favour of the status quo and populists promising a return of a Little England narrative. The story won.

With Crisis Comes Opportunity

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill but never sourced. I think that the idea probably comes from Ancient China and perhaps the I Ching (Book of Changes). In my first book, Crisis & Renewal, I explored the role that crisis plays in the renewal of complex systems. Wind and fire, flood and pestilence clear away old growth in temperate forests and open up patches, where there is equal access to water and light. Here, young organisms fueled by nutrients from a recycled past, can flourish and renew the system.

In Britain it seems likely that the old political party arrangements no longer reflect the new divisions in the electorate. The old bitter arguments about means – varieties of capitalism or socialism – may have been replaced by a sharper disagreement about ends and alternative narratives – Little England or Great Britain? The Labour Party seems to be a “walking ghost”. It performed poorly in the referendum, with many of its members ignoring its call to “Remain”. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, now faces a leadership contest that, even if he wins, leaves the party divided and in poor shape to fight a general election. From the Right Nigel Farage and UKIP threaten the Conservative Party. Indeed it was this threat that David Cameron tried to quell by agreeing to a referendum in the first place. Perversely, he has succeeded only in reinforcing UKIP, clearing the way for them to become a political power domestically. So the Brexit crisis may act as a catalyst for the reform and reconfiguration Britain’s political parties, something that would be extraordinarily difficult to do in normal times.

As for the EU, it’s time for its leaders to reflect upon the entire project. Those with direct experience of World War II are nearly gone and with their passing the founding narratives of the EU become a distant memory. The administrative integration of the EU’s members needs to be needs to be slowed and even rolled back. The creation of the Euro was a bold but premature move, freezing the system when it still needed significant wiggle room. All the attention should be on a regenerating the European narrative and the creation of compelling experiences that build and maintain it. It won’t be easy. The challenge was well stated by the late historian Tony Judt in his paradoxical thesis that Europe has been able to rebuild itself politically and economically only by forgetting the past, but that it can define itself morally and culturally only by remembering it. Perhaps it’s time to start the process again with the generations born since 1945.

Nothing lasts unless it is incessantly renewed…

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