Can Europe Make It?

“We wargamed the last days of Brexit. Here’s what we found out”

What can be learned about winners and losers from running a simulation of Brexit as a wargame?

Luke Cooper
23 July 2019, 9.32am
Screenshot: The Game of War by Class Wargames.
Richard Barbrook. All rights reserved.

Scenario planning plays an important role in modern politics. Political contestation is the art of out-manoeuvring opponents. By attempting to anticipate the moves they will make in response to events and problems, party leaderships or factions plan for possible eventualities. They seek to defeat the other side by outwitting them strategically. Simulation games are aimed at helping these efforts by building up a picture of how their opponents behave.

Interpretive hypotheses

Such games can hone strategic thinking, but they are, of course, necessarily imperfect, ‘probabilistic’ exercises. However well scenarios are prepared for there will always be too many variables for us to ‘know’ the future. There are simply too many possible events and factors that might occur, and interact in unique, complex and contingent ways, for us to be entirely sure what the actual course of history will be. E.H. Carr made this point in his famous text, What is History? Carr argued that, by the middle of the twentieth century, historians had abandoned determinism and were now more modest in their goals. ‘Content to inquire how things work’, as he put it.[i]

Rather than believing the goal of an enquiry into the past was to achieve certainty about the course of events in the future, Carr instead proposed a method based on hypothesis and interpretation. For Carr a good hypothesis constituted a ‘tool of thought, valid in so far as it is illuminating, and dependent for its validity on interpretation’.[ii] The logic of this principle was simple. History does not follow a strict determinism. But neither is anything possible. Drawing on Carr we might say that any study of a political process requires interpreting the mix of interests and circumstances in order to illuminate how exactly it evolves over time. Carr serves as a useful frame for a simulation game exercise.

The Brexit simulation

A group of us recently participated in a simulation game to model the future of the Brexit process. By assuming different roles amongst the forces in conflict over the future of the United Kingdom, we hoped to gain a greater understanding of the process and what might come next. We solicited the help of Richard Barbrook, an academic at Westminster University, and director of Digital Liberties, a UK-based cooperative that has pioneered the use of participatory simulations to anticipate political scenarios. His book, Class Wargames, applies the ideas of the French situationist, Guy Debord, who advocated the use of strategy games as performative, even theatrical, exercises to understand one’s political opponents and their strategic thinking. Barbrook designed the game, which he called, Meaningful Votes: The Brexit Simulation.

Collaborating on this initiative with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM) and the ERSTE Foundation in Vienna we assembled a group of participants in Vienna comprised of civil society, journalists, academics and intellectuals.They were a mixture of nationalities, from Austria, the Balkans, the United States and Britain, and held a plurality of political views from left to right. For mainland European participants the game provided an opportunity to empirically rationalise a crisis that many had found inexplicable; for example, the refusal hitherto of the British parties to find a compromise on Brexit in Parliament is highly alien to those used to the political systems with a culture of building consensus (often with proportional representation), that exist in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria. Each participant took on the role of a faction within Parliament with the game beginning after the defeat of the heavy defeat of the First Meaningful Vote on 15 January 2019.

For mainland European participants the game provided an opportunity to empirically rationalise a crisis that many had found inexplicable.

Simulating the factions

As Brexit has radically disrupted the existing British party system, the factional roles assumed by players did not tend to align with a particular party leadership. Instead different Tory and Labour factions were represented within the game. Each player had a series of votes allocated in the British Parliament. Larger factions had two different vote allocations: ‘waverers’ and diehards. They could potentially cast these votes in different directions. Another element of the game design lay in a consciously British-centric approach. An assumption underpinning the game was that the EU side would act as, in gaming-terms, a ‘dummy-player’. This refers to when an actor is present within a scenario, who does not face choices that affect the overall arc of the decision pathway. With modifications to the Withdrawal Agreement persistently ruled out by the EU, had players assumed this vantage point they would not have faced any choices. As a dummy-player, the umpire thus articulated the position of the EU-27 states at key decision-making points across the game.

Following the playful spirit of Debord’s legacy, this really was a game. Players accumulated points in relation to different votes passing and goals being reached. Some had hidden objectives that were revealed at the end of the game, identifying a potential conflict between the public statements of factions and their underlying motivations. The ‘winner’ had the most points at the end of the game.

Towards ‘no Brexit’

So what happened? And what did we learn from this exercise?

The outcome of the game eventually resolved itself in a new referendum. By this stage the game had moved into the near future of early autumn 2019. The cross-party negotiations had failed to reach a breakthrough acceptable to both leaderships. Softer members of the Tory Brexit Delivery Group then split away from the party leadership, crossing the floor to support a new referendum. Interestingly, this came as a surprise to the game designer, Barbrook, who had anticipated a stalemate and a further extension of Article 50 at the end of October 2019.

The EU then intervened via the umpire into the Parliamentary scenario to rule out an agreement without the backstop.

If this suggests the game had a Remain bias, other moments in the scenario serve to refute this. At an earlier moment in the game a majority emerged in Parliament in spite of opposition from Labour and the Remain parties, for the kind of technological solution to the Irish border question favoured by the ERG as an alternative to the troubled ‘Irish backstop’. Assuming the dummy-player function, the EU then intervened via the umpire into the Parliamentary scenario to rule out an agreement without the backstop. With Parliament then voting against leaving without a deal, the political factions were confronted with the same problem they have at the current time.

The crux of this decision is ultimately a narrow one: few options are still available to parties, making the outcome relatively straightforward to model. Leave on the deal May has negotiated with the EU, which is unpopular with Brexit voters and with Labour Remain voters who would like a second referendum. Or negotiate changes to the UK-future relationship document (the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened by the EU) to make the Brexit deal softer, making it more palatable for the Labour Party but even less acceptable to Brexit voters and Brexiters in the Tory party. As the changes are not legally binding on a future Tory prime minister even a Labour Party leadership wishing to ‘deliver Brexit’ has little incentive to support such a deal. This leaves only two further choices. Hold new elections in the hope they might produce a balance in the Parliament more conducive to striking a deal. Or, move towards a new referendum, which includes the opportunity to remain in the EU.

Globalisation, Brexit and strategic choices

The outcome of the game is not an exact prediction of events in the near future. One player’s calculation that at a certain stage the mainstream of the Tory party will have to try and ‘move on’ from Brexit by peeling off towards a referendum is what Carr called an interpretive hypothesis. It will be tested in the months ahead.

Rather the game offers an insight into the interests that will shape this and the core contradiction underpinning the process: that there is not a tangible, pragmatic form of Brexit acceptable to the people that want Brexit. The vote in the game for ‘technological solutions to the Irish border’ was analogous with, though not identical to, Parliament’s vote on the 30 January 2019 for the ‘Brady amendment’, which mandated the government to seek changes to the Irish backstop as a condition for passing the Withdrawal Agreement. Having passed by 317 votes to 301, Theresa May hailed it as demonstrating a ‘substantial and sustainable majority’ for leaving the EU. When the EU insisted on the Irish backstop, the refusal of the hard Brexiters and the DUP to compromise forced a logic of events that points increasingly to ‘no Brexit’.

There is not a tangible, pragmatic form of Brexit acceptable to the people that want Brexit.

Underpinning this is a mistaken conception of how sovereignty operates in the twenty-first century. No state, however powerful, enjoys absolute sovereignty. All states are constrained by economic and political forces beyond their border. Larger states or geopolitical blocs, such as the European Union, China, or the United States, have significantly more power to ‘shape’ the way globalisation works and operates. Britain would have to make steep concessions to these larger blocs to get a trade deal. The game successfully modelled this geopolitical logic by demonstrating – through the existence of the EU as a ‘dummy player’ – the limitations placed on UK Parliamentary sovereignty by the fact of its international relations with the wider world.

Leave campaign rhetoric about taking back control comes into contradiction with this material reality. In all Brexit scenarios, exiting the EU entails a loss of substantive sovereignty for Britain. Even the ‘no deal’ Brexit preferred by hardline Leavers would lead to Britain signing a deal on less advantageous terms shortly after the exit – perhaps in as little as ten days depending on the scale of the economic dislocation. Once the legal uncertainty and accompanying economic turmoil is experienced any government would be under huge pressure to end the chaos by striking an agreement with the EU. On the other hand, the Brexit process has also demonstrated the maximising-effect of EU membership for sovereign states: Ireland has been in a far stronger position to protect the open border with the North and the Good Friday Agreement because of the clear support of 26 other EU member-states.

Constrained political choices

Many people are rightly concerned about a Boris Johnson premiership. He has an appalling record of racist statements and seems motivated by little else than narcissism and personal ambition. Nonetheless, it is debatable whether there would, in the end, be a practical difference between the Brexit he pursues compared to that of his rival, Jeremy Hunt. Ultimately they inherit constrained political choices.

If a no deal, which would be an electoral disaster for any PM and would not even result in the kind of total break with the EU for which it is designed, is taken off the table, there are few remaining options. Johnson could negotiate cosmetic adjustments to the Withdrawal Agreement (akin to the ‘reassurances’ on the backstop May received prior to Meaningful Vote #3) and present these as ‘new’ changes. He could then attempt to get these through Parliament. He would need enough support from rebels on the Labour side to cancel out the Tory and DUP dissenters. This is his clearest route to ‘delivering Brexit’ by October 31.

If this fails he can then fight either an election or a referendum to ‘deliver the deal’. The choice between the two will surely be determined by the state of opinion polling at the time, with the striking rise of the Brexit Party making any voluntary move to an election by the Tories unlikely. As for a referendum, what the game did not tell us, of course, is its likely outcome. Remain will start as favourites, given the long-term shift in the polling away from Leave, but the margins are tight and contingent events can intervene. Victory is far from assured.

As for a referendum, what the game did not tell us, of course, is its likely outcome.

In search of reason

It can often feel that the Brexit process has unleashed euphoric, unreal, deeply performative, and rhetorical politics. A politics that is incapable of being rationalised in terms of interests and goals. But the game assisted us in comprehending the micro-nationalities operating within the logics of this evolving situation. ‘[W]e achieve understanding by reenacting its history in miniature’, as Debord argued.[i] Out-gaming the other side requires tactical insight into the assumptions underpinning their behaviour. While this could lead to the game becoming an end in itself, this political conflict still has to resolve itself on a normative set of assumptions: deciding on the best outcome desired for the country is the only basis from which rational compromises can be worked through in order to achieve the best possible scenario. The refusal of Brexiters to compromise, and their use of rhetorical devices to harden opposition to May’s deal amongst Leave voters, risks triggering a decision tree that leads squarely to a ‘no Brexit’ situation.

This has always been the problem with the Brexit project in its most hardline form. It is very difficult to 'rationalise' as even the goal that Brexit supporters currently want – no deal – is very unlikely to lead to a clean break with Europe. It is far more likely that in the chaos of 'no deal' Britain ends up more closely aligned to the European Union on terms Brexiters consider egregious.

For opponents of Brexit improving the quality of public debate is essential. A citizens assembly to prepare a new referendum could undoubtedly assist with this.

Time plays an important role in this process. Barbrook had envisaged that the game would end with a stalemate in October 2019 as Britain asked the EU for a further extension. But the different outcome players arrived at illustrated how the micro-rationalities animating their decisions eventually had to break. Although it may seem like the Brexit impasse will last for time immemorial, eventually the passing of time requires one of the competing factions to splinter away from their preferred outcome. There does seem to be a prima facie case for assuming this will eventually be mainstream Conservative politicians. As the governing party, they feel the stresses of state-management and power politics in a way that the opposition simply do not.

Is Britain on a path to no Brexit? We will soon find out if this interpretive hypothesis has captured the logic of the country’s vexed attempt to leave the EU.

[i] E.H. Carr, 2018. What is History? Penguin Modern Classics (epub version): New York, p. 223.

[ii] Ibid, p. 224.

[iii] Guy Debord, The Game of War, Unpopular Books: Poplar, p. 61.

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