This week I watched the Channel 4 film “Brexit: The Uncivil War”. I was compelled. I’ve been following the work of the main character - Dominic Cummings - for several years. He’s a fascinating chap. I’ve just looked again at something he wrote in 2014 - a 23,000-word diatribe about dysfunction in government. These two quotes in particular resonated:
"The system is stuck in a vicious circle – held in place by feedback loops between people, ideas, and institutions … No10 will continue to hurtle from crisis to crisis with no priorities and no understanding of how to get things done, the civil service will fail repeatedly and waste billions, the media will continue obsessing on the new rather than the important, and the public will continue to fume with rage."
"They have big problems with defining goals, selecting and promoting people, misaligned incentives, misaligned timescales, a failure of ‘information aggregation’, and a lack of competition … These problems produce two symptoms: a) errors are not admitted and b) the fast adaptation needed to cope with complexity does not happen."
Dominic Cummings - The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction - 2014
Our world has changed. Countries, economies, institutions, societies, companies, machines, software and we ourselves are much more connected. The world is wired together, literally and metaphorically, in a way unimagined even 30 years ago. This unprecedented connection has brought unprecedented complexity; and with it unpredictability and confusion. As Cummings points out, the systems of government are incapable of adapting fast enough.
It is this complexity, or at least the mismanagement of it, that has led us to “fume with rage” and most recently to the drama of Brexit. But our relationship with the EU is not the problem. It’s a symptom of the challenge of complexity. Leaving the EU will certainly change things but it probably won’t reduce complexity very much. Or, ultimately, the fuming.
Using a sporting analogy: pulling our teams out of the Champions League, restructuring the national game, changing rules, hiring new coaches, implementing video-refereeing or any of that wouldn’t make the faintest difference if we’re no longer playing soccer... when the game has changed to quidditch.
We’re in a new sport with radically different rules. Longing for a return to the days of Roy of the Rovers and arguing with the referee that there should only be only one ball (without wings) will not get us very far up the league.