When a societal institution such as a school or a prison or a hospital is seen to be failing, the authorities, by which I mean the government, or a branch of government, or a government-appointed agency, moves in and places the institution under “special measures”. The people running the show are either sacked or, perhaps more humiliatingly, rendered subordinate to a new dispensation. (It’s like that scene in the movie Diehard in which the FBI descend upon the Nakatomi Plaza business tower block which has been taken over by the euro-gangster Alan Rickman. The chief cop introduces himself to the Feds and says, “I’m in charge here.” Special Agent Johnson (no relation to the PM) says, “Not any more.”) So now the old guard need to do as they are told. In the real world, the new directive from on high often takes the form a plethora of protocols under which the ousted and humiliated erstwhile seniority must cease to think creatively and merely carry out their allotted task by numbers. They are required to stifle any initiative they may feel they have had, and function as cogs in a machine. I say “plethora” deliberately, because the damning report that has come from the Royal Commission, or the independent judge-led report, may offer, and insist upon, a fantastic number, like three hundred and ninety six, or so, of recommendations.
I wonder if the members of Her Majesty’s Government have any idea how close they are to being put into special measures. It doesn’t matter whether you were a Brexiteer or a Remainer. The idea of wrangling, for four and a half years, over the terms of the UK withdrawal from the EU, and at the end of that time coming up with nothing, is not merely unacceptable, or reprehensible, or damning, it borders on the absurd, the surreal, and the insane.
I think it was the F1 world champion Sir Jackie Stewart who once said that, while there are many people who can open a deal, there are very few who can close one. In any walk of life, you need to be able to differentiate rehearsal and performance, training and racing, swotting for a test and sitting the test, debating and voting, coming to a decision, and enacting it. The preparation is important. In medicine, the doctor takes a careful history from the patient, carries out a physical examination, undertakes targeted investigations if necessary, collates data, reaches a diagnosis, considers how the diagnosis uniquely affects the patient, settles upon the proposed treatment, or management, of the patient’s illness, and then writes the prescription. It has been a long and complex process, but in the end, the only thing that really matters is the prescription. It doesn’t matter how elegant the consultation and diagnostic process has been; if you don’t decide on a treatment, and initiate it, the entire process has been futile.
Of course doctors worry that their choice of treatment is misguided. They may agonise over the decision. They may confer with colleagues. But in the end, that prescription still has to be signed off. Failure to do so is an abnegation of responsibility and a tacit admission of utter failure, and defeat.
In terms of the current EU/UK negotiations, Michael Martin, Ireland’s Taoiseach, understands this. He has said that an inability to get a deal over the line would be “an appalling failure of statecraft”. But I do believe there are people in government who cannot discern the difference between process and progress.
I don’t think the electorate will take kindly to the notion of a No Deal Brexit, not necessarily because World Trade Organisation rules are not the best, but because the government will have taken four and a half years to arrive at an arrangement which, in broad outline, could have been signed off, in 2016, on the back of a fag packet over morning coffee. It is at that point that the electorate will send in Special Agent Johnson.
What will he do? Well, he will probably do all the things that governments do to failing schools, prisons, and hospitals. He will introduce some stringent rules. The diplomatic practice of “working through the night” at the last minute will have to stop. Surgeons and airline pilots know they are dangerous people when they are tired. Exhausted politicians or diplomats are not likely to make good decisions. They need to manage their time better. And the “working dinners” will have to stop. Surgeons don’t munch a pie behind the sterile mask while removing an appendix, pilots don’t balance a Vindaloo on their knee while landing at Heathrow. Of course, it goes without saying that the Palace of Westminster’s bars will have to close. There are no bars in schools, prisons, or hospitals. Special Agent Johnson will send in functionaries with clipboards who will perform time and motion studies. Perhaps they will get the MPs to clock in.
But much as the Schadenfreude of watching politicians squirm under the new austerity tempts me, I don’t really want them to don the straitjacket of three hundred and ninety six recommendations. It always seems to me that, when a judge places an institution into special measures, the bigger the number of recommendations, the less likely it is that the judge has uncovered the real root of the institution’s problems. He has not seen the wood for the trees. Of course the devil is in the detail, but in any complex analysis, you need to be able to encapsulate the whole issue in terms that are simple whilst not simplistic, rather in the way that a theoretical physicist will study an immense number of apparently disparate phenomena, and come up with a unifying equation of great beauty and simplicity. That sort of synthesis is not easy. You need to be able to discern the fundamental structure of a problem, and then persuade your colleagues that the model you have created, and the solutions it generates, are correct. The ability to model the world, and then convince colleagues of the model’s applicability, is what constitutes leadership. That is as true of the problem of Brexit as it is of the problem of any ailing institution.
Fishing rights, a level playing field, and rules of arbitration in disputes are said to constitute the barriers to a deal. And yet the question of the Irish border remains. It has always seemed to me that the Irish question is what has made a Brexit solution impossible. At least it is impossible unless you are prepared to think the unthinkable, like Einstein, standing on a railway embankment watching a train being struck twice by lightning. It’s impossible, unless you are prepared to think the unthinkable.
“The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” Where is Abe Lincoln when you need him? I have a notion that if Abe Lincoln were Special Agent Johnson, he would advise us to revise these islands’ constitutional arrangements.