Branching Histories and the ‘Error’ of Brexit

In the introduction to Brexit Time: Leaving the EU – Why, How and When? published last month, I quote from a blog post written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign director for Vote Leave. In that post, he describes a world in which events happen that change the future, but where those events happen in a ‘non-linear’ way. These are the ‘branching histories’ that take us down one road rather than another. Cummings wants us to make sense of our world by seeing how things might have been, as much as how they turned out to be.

Much of Brexit Time is infused with this sense of time and timing. The easy example is David Cameron’s decision to go for an early referendum rather than to wait. The choice – a choice in time but a choice structured by time – led to a referendum on 23 June 2016 and a vote that will see the UK leave the EU.

But time, and the branching histories of time, did not stop on 23 June. And in a fascinating interchange on Twitter between Cummings and  David Allen Green – lawyer, Financial Times journalist and author of a forthcoming, and much anticipated book on Brexit – Cummings returns to his theme now that we are a year on from the referendum.  Rather helpfully, Green’s own blog sets out the interchange in full. It begins with this:

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The interchange has been reported as an admission on the part of Cummings that the referendum was, and Brexit is, an ‘error’. For many this will chime with their own views, including views that key protagonists were simply playing politics, with history leaving it up to hapless politicians to try and make something of an outcome they didn’t expect and many didn’t want.

But I think it is important to be clear about what Cummings is admitting or asserting. He simply entertains the possibility that ‘in some possible branches of the future’ leaving will be an error. Otherwise – and as he says in a further tweet – ‘there are more possible branches of future in which leaving is good for [EU] as well as for UK’.

In essence, Cummings welcomes the destabilising effects of Brexit. For him it is a way out of a particular path dependence or a particular branch of history that saw the UK inside the EU.  But at the same time, there is no guarantee that this destabilisation will be capitalised upon either by the UK or the EU.

And so I don’t interpret Cummings’ response as a review of the last year and a conclusion that he and others got it wrong. Rather it is a projection forward and a willingness to accept that Brexit may not turn out to be the decisive moment of change for either the UK or the EU.

If one wants to criticise Cummings it is better to take a different approach.

The first is to argue that the EU has itself always been a destabilising force for Member States, requiring them to break out of narrow nationalistic patterns and to engage in structures of transnational cooperation in both economic and political terms. True, not every example will be a success, but the EU has been an evolving experiment in controlled destabilisation.

The second point is that the political destabilisation which has been unleashed by the referendum is anything but controlled. The UK is rapidly becoming an example of what I call ‘un-government’. This the appearance of government but without the operation of the processes and structures capable of stabilising the system sufficiently to provide for orderly decision-making. Brexit isn’t merely shaking up government, it appears to be shredding it. And all the while, the amount of time and energy which is going into Brexit makes it impossible for the government to do anything else, including the sorts of domestic changes which presumably Cummings believes are necessary for the full promise of Brexit to be realised.

Finally, the problem with focusing on time and history in this way is that it doesn’t give much space for politics, political actors and agency. By bracketing off choices and waiting to see what the branching histories of time reveal in the future, no one ever takes responsibility or is held to account for their choices and their ‘errors’. On a daily basis, we are seeing a toxic combination of indecision and poor decision-making. It is these failures which may end up with Brexit – at some point in the future – being evaluated as an ‘error’. But that doesn’t help us now whether you believe that Brexit is, and always was, a mistake, or if you believed it to be the right decision, but worry that it is being bodged by those in charge.

So as much as I travel some way with the branching histories of time, this time – a year after the referendum and a month after a general election which has only highlighted the splits over Brexit – seems like the right time to ask whether we really do want to continue down the path we embarked upon on 23 June 2016.

3 thoughts on “Branching Histories and the ‘Error’ of Brexit”

  1. What an incisive post! Very thought-provoking, particularly on the current “shredding” of UK government. I am far from a fan of Cummings, but encompassed his views and critiqued them in a humane way. Kudos.

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  2. If any aspect of theoretical physics or mathematics applies to Brexit, it would be Chaos Theory

    The referendum result injected a massive dose of entropy into a system that was never entirely stable to begin with, and now we see it breaking down.

    Probably our best hope now is a Quantum Superposition of being simultaneously “in” and “out” via some kind of BINO (Brexit In Name Only) fudge deal.

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  3. Cummings is really only stating something that should be obvious, albeit in his typical pseudo-scientific style: that the outcome of Brexit — or anything — can be good or bad, because chance plays a huge part in everything.

    The problem, which was vividly demonstrated by the way his words have been reported, is that the nature of politics requires that most supporters of both leave and remain, particularly elected representatives, cannot actually admit to this obvious fact. If a leave supporter says that Brexit could have a negative outcome, it is immediately seized upon by remain supporters as an “admission” that the decision was a mistake. Likewise, if a remain supporter says that there *is* a way for Brexit to be a success, then that will be considered tantamount to endorsing the result. They will be excoriated for not doing everything possible to achieve the positive result that they have accepted is possible.

    I would argue that that it is this hardening of positions that is driving the current political dysfunction surrounding Brexit. Or, at least, making it impossible to resolve. If you are a remain supporter, and hold that Brexit will be a catastrophic error in all circumstances, then any attempt to run the process better is pointless. Moreover, you are actually incentivised to make sure it goes as badly as possible, because that will vindicate you. And leave supporters ability to say things are going wrong, especially badly wrong, is suppressed by the need to hold the “party line” that Brexit is a good thing and will be an inevitable success.

    The political class has tried to overcome this by reframing the debate into “soft” and “hard” Brexit, but the referendum battle lines are, I think, still far too fresh and well-drawn to allow any real honesty into public debate. And even this sub debate has ossified into an idea that we can simply decide what we want, then get it, without any acceptance that we might not be able to achieve whatever “soft” or “hard” outcome we hope for. Progress in any political process requires either a consensus on the desired outcome, or at least a consensus on the facts. When every new development or piece of economic news is viewed through the prism of determining if the original decision was a “mistake”, with the implicit or explicit implication that it either endorses it or gives grounds for it to be reversed, then I don’t see how we will ever make any progress.

    It would have been nice if Cummings’ “admission” could have prompted a more sophisticated debate, but instead it will likely have the opposite effect. Supporters on both sides will see that even the most obscure and caveated acceptance of a possible outcome contrary to their expectations is immediately translated into headline news about a supposed change-of-heart. In such an atmosphere, where is the branching future that leads to any honest or useful political discourse?

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