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Duality, dualism, duelling and Brexit

Taking this opportunity to rethink a part of government crucial to a fair and dynamic society would be good politics. Whitehall is no more capable of doing this than Brussels.

lead Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers a Brexit speech at the National Transport Design Centre, Coventry University Technology Park, in Coventry. February 26, 2018. Aaron Chown/Press Association. All rights reserved.Light can be treated as both a wave and a particle depending on the experiment we, as observers, use to examine its behaviour. This apparent paradox was described for many years as the ‘wave–particle dualism’, implying that they were incompatible and irreconcilable phenomena.

Dualism describes antagonistic or negating opposites: mind/matter, objective/subjective, Brexit/Remain. Two concepts form a dualism when they belong to the same logical level and at that level are perceived as opposites. The logic behind this dialectic is negation. Negation takes a proposition p to another proposition not-p. Not-p is interpreted intuitively as being true when p is false, and false when p is true. This fuels pugilistic media interviews and adversarial politics. Modern duels are fought with dualisms. This fuels pugilistic media interviews and adversarial politics. Modern duels are fought with dualisms.

Such dualistic thinking is a product of the prevailing objectivist Cartesian world view, with its orthodox logic, under which we are still brought up. In science, it was not until it was recognized that phenomena we observe in ‘nature’ are not independent of our acts of observing them, that this wave/particle paradox was resolved by appreciating that their behaviours are in fact complementary and constitute a duality rather than a dualism. Taken together they do not negate each other but create a unity or a coherent whole.

‘It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.’ Albert Einstein

Reframing conceptual pairs as dualities rather than dualisms stimulates relational thinking and practice. Following this logic the following pairs need not be understood as self-negating but expressions of key elements or concepts in a relational dynamic in which the whole is different to the parts: control - autonomy; constraint - freedom; environment - system; social world – biophysical world; yin - yang. When recognized as pairs participating in a relational dynamic, the operational possibilities open up and may be greater,  more rewarding and exciting.

Brexit – Remain

When treated as a dualism, Brexit – Remain creates a no-win pairing, since maintaining a relationship with the EU is inescapable.  Reframing this as a duality, however, such as ‘reinvent – relate’ or ‘redesign - renegotiate’, maintains as a focus an appreciation that a future UK-EU relationship must continue to exist, though its nature may change.

Politics has yet to catch up with the laws that science has revealed. Politics is both a practice and a field of study that may regard itself as separate, special, and above comprehension by other disciplines. Some political parties have replaced religions as our source of reassuring beliefs, simple truths and certainties – something for us all to hold onto in this world of daunting turbulence, stirred hourly by the consummate, naked force of the internet serving up valuable information and  disinformation, thoughtful opinion and propaganda alike. In this world of politics, the EU has become either something holy or akin to the devil.

Politics sells indulgences (via preferential lobbying), promises Messiahs (the one great leader who will lead us out of the wilderness), and a sense of belonging (known as a party). In this world of politics, the EU has become either something holy or akin to the devil.

The base human emotions at play here were summarised well in an Investors Chronicle (IC) editorial by John Hughman. This essential journal for the individual investor had, unusually, published two tips on the same day – a buy and a sell – on the same company, Sirius Minerals.

Both cases had substance. Whilst some readers appreciated the point – no single answer – many readers did not. “Strap on a pair IC and make a decision” as one bluntly put it. In other words, leaders who make clear decisions are strong and masculine: those who do not are weak. Strong and wrong is preferable to wait and see, or, working through the complexity, or, making your own mind up. We demand certainty, we don’t do duality. Listen to all those peddling Brexit or Remain certainties, all of them wrong.

Science has progressively exposed religious ‘beliefs’, replacing them with explications that leave religions fit for their original purposes of spirituality and faith. The 400th centenary of Martin Luther and the Reformation has seen Charles Handy, the Irish writer on organisational behaviour and management, and others draw the parallels with today’s contrived power structures, its false idols, its abuse of power, its convoluted rationalisations as to why it is the only true way. The search is on for today’s ‘Ninety Five Theses’ to release us from this modern monster.

Wave-particle duality representation of a light wave,2017. Wikicommons/ThreePhaseAC. Some rights reserved.

Systems thinking applied to Brexit

How would the school of systems thinking approach Brexit? It would recognise that the whole of the UK is caught in a two-fold trap of its own making:

- we are stuck in a ‘dualism’ of self-negating pairs. There are several, with  Brexit/Remain as the over-riding narrative, when what is happening is the re-defining of our relationship with the rest of Europe. It is not either/or, in/out, four legs good/two legs bad – but how much, what, and where. Regulation, immigration, Ireland are all stuck in these traps.

-  The ‘system boundary’ is drawn as the UK, when the solution lies as much with rolling back the infection of neoliberal economics throughout Europe.

-  Regulation is posed as: do we continue with EU regulation, or, ‘take back control’ and have our own – a classic false choice.

To spring this trap, we must dump this particular either/or and start with the purpose and effect of regulation, i.e. what does it do for people, society, the economy. Taking this perspective, we find that the UK (and the EU) are both over-regulated and under-regulated, and, variously, the regulations are both under-enforced and over-enforced. Waves and particles make up the light. The ‘system boundary’ is drawn as the UK, when the solution lies as much with rolling back the infection of neoliberal economics throughout Europe.

A good regulation does not result of itself in a good outcome. In terms of outcomes achieved (and this is what matters for science), some from the EU score highly and some poorly, and some in the UK score well and some poorly. Broadband services continue to be inadequate due, in considerable part, to weak regulators in the UK, the saving grace coming from the presently strong EU regulator.  

At the same time, many organisations – public and private, small and large – experience the cost and demotivating bureaucracy of misplaced regulation, some stemming from the EU, but usually amplified by UK civil servants in Whitehall. The same stultifying effects of poorly conceived regulation can be seen in many other sectors.

Dumping this dualism and recognising its duality, would lead our politicians to a strategy aimed at effective regulation in practice (not EU or UK regulation); describing how this would be achieved; the transition from top-down remotely developed regulation; and the governance of regulators for sound enforcement. Taking this opportunity to rethink a part of government crucial to a fair and dynamic society would be good politics. Whitehall is no more capable of doing this than Brussels.

Free movement in the dualism trap

As a second example, the issue of economic migration is posed as continuing with free movement or not. Here we are snared in another ‘dualism trap’ of our own making in attempting to maintain sufficient supply of appropriately skilled people whilst reducing this flow to socially digestible levels.

But no-one is looking at one of the major causes of the demand for immigrants and hence its high rate. It is the failure of the education system to produce sufficient home-grown skills (also a major cause of inequality) that maintains the demand for high rates of immigration. Post-Brexit, skills-building education becomes critical.

Other European countries provide these skills through comprehensive vocational education from aged 14. Post-Brexit, skills-building education  becomes critical. It takes time. How is the transition to be handled without the economy taking a nose-dive? Answers include: reducing outsourcing to big companies that often employ high proportions of economic migrants, enabling much more local sourcing by local authorities, and enabling this through executive mayors - all further components of a wider system at work.

Preferential lobbying rooted in Brussels and Westminster

Preferential lobbying is another source of unfairness, wealth appropriation, and disenfranchisement (widely deemed a root cause of the vote for Brexit). PL has become rooted in the decision-making processes of both Brussels and Westminster. Once more, this is not an either/or. Both governments require major process surgery. Even outside of the EU, Brussels lobbying will continue to be to the detriment of UK citizens. The system boundary is not the UK alone. Even outside of the EU, Brussels lobbying will continue to be to the detriment of UK citizens.

Lobbying by large organisations for their own ends is not inevitable. It is the product of systems of government that unwittingly both allow and promote it. Stein Ringen’s[1] study reveals major flaws within the UK’s system of governance. Examining New Labour’s achievements (1997-2007) in terms of social policy objectives, he concludes that they had achieved ‘absolutely nothing’ in their flagship policies of child poverty, education, social justice and health.

He highlighted problems that emerge when governments adopt command-and-control approaches that fail to mobilise citizens or stakeholders in policy development and implementation. His sobering conclusion was that no UK government, of any political persuasion, could get done what it is elected to do.

Ringen’s findings point to deep-seated issues in the ‘system of governance’ and the need for revitalised and innovative  governance regimes, including strengthened modes of horizontal governance [2] [3] .

Likewise, in Stand and Deliver, Straw[4] argues that in the UK ‘the present system as a whole is itself what stands in the way of successful government’. Dave Richards[5] describes the 'perfect storm' that seems to have engulfed many UK institutions. He reviews the crisis of legitimacy that has taken root in Britain's key institutions and explores the crisis across them to determine if a set of shared underlying pathologies exist to create this collective impasse.

The deep causes of the vote for Brexit and of the election of Trump are exposed by Anthony Barnett[6] in his expansive analysis of The Lure Of Greatness. Taking a straight line down the middle of the pros and antis, he finds multiple failures in political judgement and governmental performance landing on the same square: the Constitution or the lack of one.

Political party thinking

Each of the political parties’ thinking is bogged down, indeed paralysed by dualisms, as one side or the other declares for one or other existing set of institutions and treaties. (The Labour Party itself is a dualism of two parties bound or forced together by First Past The Post voting: the Conservative Party is possibly a tripleism).

Labour’s dualism trap has its foundations in three sets of fears that demand recognition and respect:

-     the fears of those alienated by globalisation, neo-liberalism, breakdown of community and austerity who sense that ‘control’ or autonomy can be regained from forces beyond their control;

-     the fears of those who have come to embrace multiculturalism, cooperation, freedom of movement and the capacity to be, collectively, as powerful as the US, an emerging China and India and globally powerful multi-nationals; and

-     the fears that drive Euroscepticism - sceptical of the capacity of a united Europe to invent or reinvent the form of socialism that Jeremy Corbyn espouses.

Whether or not this characterisation is adequate is not the point. The debate/discourse has become polarised in the form of a classic dualism.  The only ways out are through changing the boundary of the discourse and admitting the systemic complexity of the whole leave/remain situation - which a referendum has made worse rather than better.

The reality cannot be escaped that whether Brexit or Remain prevails, a new system of governance is in the process of being constructed.  Because it is a system it has to have boundaries. The question is where and determined by whom? And which boundaries at which levels?

As evidenced by the confusion, political ineptitude and institutional complexity, the UK cannot retreat to a new system isolated from the rest of Europe. This situation was imagined when John Donne wrote in Devotions (1624): “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” 

There is no technological saviour in prospect that can watch over a new, hard, boundary that also maintains the essential elements of the Good Friday agreement. Nor is ‘fortress Britain’ feasible:  money, goods, services are all part of an inescapably interconnected world. Japan and China each own about 5.5% of the US's national debt of $19.4 trillion.

When reframed as a duality then the boundary conditions of a new system can themselves be reframed – regulating with purpose; balancing people movement; maintaining trade; protecting the Good Friday agreement; honouring the interests of Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish voters; and determining the extent of ‘federal UK’.

Jeremy Corbyn sorts out – a strategic change agenda

Unexpectedly as ever, Jeremy Corbyn has seemingly become the only politician in the UK who can, if he chooses, sort all of this out. Fortunately and sensibly he has thus far said little. Naturally the duellists don’t like it, but it leaves him free now to pursue a viable political strategy, along these lines:

- He and his parliamentary colleagues will have to demonstrate that they have listened to the concerns and fears of both Brexit and Remain camps, that they can articulate their concerns and that the outcomes of this listening will take precedence over internal party machinations.

- A discourse/narrative will have to be built that evidences how and why he will act to increase the choices for the UK, its countries and its peoples, as we move into a more complex and uncertain future – especially a future which is post-carbon and full of surprise due to human-induced climate change, Artificial Intelligence, the rise of China and India, and corporate capital giants.

- Regardless of outcome, dealing with a post-Brexit political scenario demands bureaucracies and politicians who can think and act systemically, who do not inadvertently, or naively, or deliberately design for systemic failure. The history of Conservative-led Brexit in the UK demonstrates that this is far from being the case at present.

- An action strategy and a dedicated Ministry devoted to making the European project (Reinvent) better will be essential (based on the experience of working in and with Europe since the mid-1990s, and supported by recent evidence, Whitehall has never really taken Europe seriously and knows little of the systemic complexity of the situation).

- Voting, including referenda as historically conducted, is no longer an adequate mode of expression for encouraging an engaged, responsible, democratic citizenry. New institutional arrangements need to be tested and evaluated. It is noteworthy that China is probably doing more deliberative local democracy than any other nation – despite the reputation of its central government.[7]

In an election campaign, Corbyn could ask the nation for five years to put a strategic change agenda into place and promise a plebiscite at the right time – but not a referendum as currently constituted in the UK (an alternative could be the same sex marriage voting strategy which, surprisingly perhaps, worked so well in Australia and, differently, in Ireland, and/or a systematic mix of deliberative democracy activities such as citizen juries and the like; or to change the rules for referenda). Corbyn could ask the nation for five years to put a strategic change agenda into place and promise a plebiscite at the right time.

The function of a nation state

At this historical moment, the function of the nation state has to be critically reappraised – they were an 18-19th century invention (in current form). It could be argued that coalitions of regions and cities, with value-systems amongst citizens more common than not, are the way of the future.

Both European and UK governance has to be redesigned.

If this set of proposals is too radical or infeasible for the purveyors of the status quo, it is nowhere near as radical as a hard Brexit. The sheer complexity of enacting a Brexit in the form desired by one peculiar grouping of Conservatives means they are playing pinball with Britain’s future. The consequences of any action are essentially unknowable in advance; what is sure is that there is more systemic risk associated with leaving than with remaining. Armed by thinking through of his Brexit strategy, Jeremy Corbyn could possess the authority to create such a pan-European movement.

Across Europe there is a greater and stronger coalition of interest to be built that can roll back the excesses of neo-liberal economics than is available in the UK alone (another system boundary change). Armed by thinking through of his Brexit strategy, Jeremy Corbyn could possess the authority to create such a pan-European movement. He has the opportunity to become a leader in Europe and to place Britain at the forefront of the much needed renegotiation of the social and political contract.

Duelling with dualisms is taking us nowhere. We need new initiatives, new institutions and some of that scarce commodity – courage – to renegotiate and reinvent, whilst at the same time conserving the essential features of a just society, the rule of law, the separation of church and state and all that means, meaningful democracy, human rights and all forms of equality.


[1] Ringen S. (2009) The Economic Consequences of Mr Brown. How a Strong Government Was Defeated by a Weak System of Governance. The Bardwell Press: United Kingdom 64pp.

[2] Ringen S. (2014) Is American democracy headed to extinction? The Washington Post (March 28) Available from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/is-american-democracy-headed-toextinction/2014/03/28/70e2c7f4-b69f-11e3-8cc3-d4bf596577eb_story.html (Accessed 12 March 2015).

[3] Ison RL. (2017) Systems Practice: How to Act.  In Situations of Uncertainty and Complexity in a Climate-Change World. 2nd Edition. Springer: London and The Open University.

[4] Straw Ed (2014) Stand and Deliver. A Design for Successful Government. London: Treaty for Government

[5] Richards, Dave (2014) Institutional Crisis in 21st Century Britain: Palgrave Macmillan

[6] Barnett, Anthony (2017) The Lure Of Greatness: Unbound

[7] Tang B: The Discursive Turn: deliberative governance in China's urbanized villages. Journal of Contemporary China 2015, 24:137-157.

About the authors

Ray Ison is Professor of Systems at the Open University, a former President of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, and a Trustee of the American Society for Cybernetics. In other words he knows quite a lot about how to think and act in complex and uncertain situations.

Ed Straw is a Visiting Fellow in Applied Systems Thinking in Practice at the Open University, writer and campaigner for the reformation of government, former chair of Relate and Demos, partner and board member at PwC, and government and Labour party adviser.

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