The oblique path to a better way

By Martin Vogel


This is the third of a three-part series on the consequences of Brexit for leaders. Part 2 discussed the challenge of self-leadership to preserve ones values and imagine a better future.

In imagining a future that is better than demagoguery and despotism, we need to be patient with ourselves. The Brexiteers and the Trumpistas offer beguilingly simple plans. Our reticence is founded on the realisation that things are more complex. It is not a sign of ignorance but wisdom that the way out of this mess is not immediately apparent. We will reach the higher ground through persistent but adaptive intent – or, as John Kay would have it, by taking the path of obliquity:

“In obliquity, there are no predictable connections between intentions and outcomes. Oblique problem solvers do not evaluate all available alternatives: they make successive choices from a narrow range of options. Effective decision makers are distinguished not so much by the superior extent of their knowledge as by their recognition of its limitations. Problem solving is iterative and adaptive, rather than direct.”

Each of us who is alarmed at the turn to demagoguery in 2016 must find their own oblique way to a better future. This calls for experimentation, novel associations, reaching out in resistance, nurturing imagination about a brighter future. If the route ahead is dispiritingly unclear, we can at least define reasonably easily the direction of travel:

  • away from the failings of an excessively financialised economy;
  • averse to the intolerant populism that it has spawned;
  • in defence of a free and open society in which nations aspire to resolve their differences through co-operation rather than warfare;
  • towards a more inclusive social and economic settlement.

As Rachel Sylvester argues, there is still everything to play for (£):

“Politicians on the centre-left and centre-right need to find a way of articulating a politics of identity, rather than simply repeating the old economic mantras.They must deal with the genuine issue, seized on by populists, of growing wealth inequality and the sense that there is a super-rich elite that floats above the rules.They should also head off a festering frustration about intergenerational unfairness that will only increase.There is plenty that must change, to allow things to stay the same, but even after this year of demagogues and despots the centrists are stronger than they think.”

I mostly agree with her sentiments (not the bit about a politics of identity; perhaps an emotionally intelligent politics would suffice). But I would replace the word “politicians” in the quote with “leaders wherever they are”. Politicians are floundering and it falls to concerned citizens to shape the agenda.

We should demand and give space to political leaders to pursue the oblique path. Theresa May has a near impossible task making sense of Brexit, but she does us no favours shielding us from the complexity. It is clear that, six months after the referendum, ministers are motivated more by a desire to conceal their cluelessness and hold their party together than in fostering intelligent public engagement in what the Brexit mandate means. They have irresponsibly squandered what limited political capital Britain retains in Europe to the extent that talk of a soft or hard Brexit is beside the point. The most likely outcome at present is a chaotic Brexit, in which we fail to agree terms and simply crash out of the EU as the Article 50 deadline expires. Britain would be left isolated, seeking favours from the world’s narcissistic strong men.

Instead of indulging the Government’s collusion with the simplistic fantasies of right-wing populists, we should demand that they acknowledge the immense difficulty of unravelling Britain’s relationship with Europe. We should insist on them creating space to deliberate in Parliament, rather than careering ahead with a contested mandate.

Above all else, concerned citizens should strive to avoid letting relationships, communities or society bifurcate into mutually incomprehensible camps. There are more people of goodwill in this nation than there are those trying to sow division. But the people of goodwill, those who wish above all else for a safe landing inside or outside the EU, must work consciously to resist the influence of those on the left and right of the political spectrum who seek to shut down thought. If Britain is to find a way through the bewildering challenges ahead – trying to make sense of Brexit as the wider world descends into authoritarian nationalism – its people need to be open to ideas and finding common cause across the usual boundaries of political tribes.

Social media and newspaper choices tend to isolate people within self-reinforcing world views. As individuals, we can contribute to creating an open and curious intellectual culture by seeking out diversity of opinion – whether through our sources of news, or through the conversations we are prepared to have with people around us. In pursuit of intelligent views across a spectrum of opinion, I include among my sources of insight writers – such as Nick Cohen, Chris Dillow and Chris Grey – whose analyses tend to align with mine as well as others – such as Andrew Lilico or Roger Scruton – who coherently challenge my perspectives.

Returning to where I started, we need to relearn the skill of conversing safely about difference. Having these conversations is necessary if we’re to heal the divisions in our society that Brexit has revealed or opened up. By conversing safely, I mean with attunement to the risk of inadvertently activating hurt and offence when we try to explore why we hold different views from each other.

Engaging with difference means having conversations that challenge our preconceptions and enable us to understand where those who hold different opinions are coming from. Creating that understanding creates connection between people, which is something to value in itself when cohesion is breaking down. More than that, it enables us to move beyond the dogmas of old and the new ones that seem to be solidifying fast and so think afresh about how to improve things and avert disaster.

It’s probable that we can’t avoid eliciting difficult feelings when we have challenging conversations. It’s precisely these feelings which can shut down debate and inhibit the possibility of moving to mutual understanding. But we don’t have to fall prey to them. By naming difficult feelings, if they arise in oneself or perhaps if you notice having provoked them in another, it’s possible to mediate them and continue the enquiring conversation.

2016 has been a horrible year. As it draws to a close against the backdrop of Aleppo, Trump, terrorism and political assassination, the problems of Brexit seem trivial but all the more insurmountable for the chaos in the wider world. We will have to become accustomed to anxiety and foreboding. But we don’t have to feel disempowered. In many ways, mine has been a charmed generation, unacquainted with catastrophe. Our luck may be running out. But the storm will pass. However bad it gets, we need to nurture our vision of a better way and insist on bringing it to fruition. Small steps along an oblique path will get us there.

Image courtesy Brett Jordan.