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Negotiating Brexit from the ground up

Having a national conversation is no small task.  However the principles are simple and their implementation is absolutely possible. 

lead lead Screenshot of the OurBrexit website.

Brexit is increasingly being treated as a national crisis on one level which challenges party lines and has even led to proposals of the formation of a Unity government. There is no doubt that it is complex with multiple moving parts and has cut to the heart of families and communities. However, it is crucial to realise that in order for it to be successful or for it not to “take us over a cliff edge” we the British public, will need to be prepared to undergo a change in culture. 

This will involve our becoming more sophisticated in our approach to negotiation and conflict resolution as individuals and communities. If we do this, we can start building workable solutions to Brexit and, potentially, build stronger, more cohesive communities that speak less of hate and more of tolerance.

The challenge

The Brexit referendum required us, as a nation, to take polarised views and to shore up our arguments against each other in order to win. We were forced to decide whether we were “in” or “out” even if we did not all fully understand what either choice meant. Once we had made that decision we had to commit to it and, to some degree entrench ourselves in our positions against our neighbours. colleagues and friends. These are positions that our MPs have then gone on to fight and defend. At the same time, we, the electorate are still not necessarily clear on what we think the right thing to do is on the minutiae of some of the issues.

This starting point was always going to be a tricky one. Trump has been very successful in adopting this kind of binary negotiation strategy.  He takes his position and he pursues it aggressively.  He also is not afraid of doing an about face on his position if it means him getting what he wants. But this also carries high risks of alienation. However, to achieve a solution that rises to the complexities of the financial, social and interpersonal challenges, the in/out, right/wrong binary approach carries with it a risk that a complex solution addressing the multiplicity of needs will never be reached.

As Trump has shown, negotiating hard-line agreements may achieve financial results but does not guarantee harmony or indeed popularity. It may also require us to be ruthless and dishonest which, in the long term is divisive and destructive. A dictatorial or bullish approach often gets the negotiator what they want but risks alienation and divisiveness amongst communities. This is the approach we need to employ if we are pursuing a binary position. At the same time, when we compromise we can be seen as weak, woolly and caving-in to others. Having said that, the only way through negotiations is through compromise and collaboration which will necessarily create periods of uncertainty and even seeming lack of direction or weakness. The only way through negotiations is through compromise and collaboration which will necessarily create periods of uncertainty and even seeming lack of direction or weakness.

The opportunity

On the other hand, the World Cup showed quite clearly the capacity of the British people to come together behind a common goal, even if we didn’t achieve quite as many goals as we may have liked. Although it was England playing, many of us witnessed people, up and down the country, coming together in unity and community. Beyond that, the multicultural nature of our communities was celebrated. What it demonstrated more than anything was a desire to pull together, that we prefer to work as a team than to be at odds. What it demonstrated more than anything was a desire to pull together, that we prefer to work as a team than to be at odds.

So, how does this apply to Brexit?  In order for the Brexit process to result in a successful outcome for the UK, individuals and communities will need to move away from positions (in or out) and start to focus on what our common interests and needs are.  Common interests may focus on:

-        A soft border in Ireland

-        Workable trade arrangements

-        Agreement on security issues

Common needs may focus on:

-        Feeling safe in our communities

-        Keeping people in work

-        Ensuring a good standard of living for all

If we focus less on who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad, then we will have more time to focus on these crucial questions.

The way forward

Implementing this kind of national conversation is not a small task even on a borough by borough basis.  It would require a movement away from debate and winning arguments towards working together to build a common solution or at least common priorities and aims.  It is not necessarily an easy task but could be made simpler using the following simple steps.

-    Identify and engage community leaders

This means bringing together local politicians and council leaders, primary care and community groups, religious and spiritual groups, school leaders and even gang leaders to engage in a process of building agreement.  On the face of it this may seem controversial and would be contingent on the safe space described below.  However, bringing together different groups including those who do not usually have a voice is key to garnering the big picture of what the country as a whole wants and needs.  It is also crucial to building mutual understanding and recognition which again moves away from the binary position of good and bad, right and wrong which is so often a matter of perception

-   Create a safe space

In order to have these challenging conversations, a safe space to express opinions and work through issues or conflicts will be key.  This would mean that any of these conversations were closely managed by appropriately trained negotiators, facilitators or mediators to ensure that:

  • Conversations were focused around common interests and needs
  • Negotiations around those interests and needs were carefully managed
  • Circumstances are conducive to people being able to honestly express their opinion including confidentiality and the impartiality of the facilitator
  • Each individual had the time and space to express their opinion
  • Individuals have the tools to communicate and through the process learn to build agreement
  • Follow up support allowed for conflict situations arising as offshoots from the core conversation to be addressed safely

-     Negotiate common interests and needs

Identifying and agreeing common interests and needs would go a long way to backing up the government’s negotiating position.  This is because, as I have already mentioned, negotiations necessarily require compromise.  In order to compromise, a negotiator needs to know what the guiding priorities are and then aim to achieve them through the deal.  In this way, the conversation moves away from customs union or no customs union towards job security, cost of living, ability to grow businesses and ability to trade with others in the short, medium and long term.

Common interests and needs will diverge particularly if this were rolled out nationwide. We would, as a country, also need to acknowledge that we are not all going to get what we want and there may be more lose-lose than win-win.  However, key themes will emerge and with them, as with any negotiation, the opportunity for new solutions, creative thought and a new capacity within communities to build agreement. Key themes will emerge and with them, as with any negotiation, the opportunity for new solutions, creative thought and a new capacity within communities to build agreement.

To do this we need to ask our community groups the following questions:

-        What do you want generally and specifically?

-        How do you see that working out?

-        What do you think other people want?

-        What are your top and bottom lines or best and worst case scenarios?

-        Where do you feel you could/could not compromise around those issues?

-        Where do you think the other parties could/could not compromise around those issues

Not only do these questions help flush out and clarify for others but also themselves what they want. They also start to address the misconceptions that create and build arguments that may not be there in the first place.

-      Identify individual, group and common risks

Any negotiating position needs to be balanced by the risks of not getting what we want.  If we do not acknowledge the risks associated with pursuing our position, we cannot negotiate effectively or realistically.  Any negotiating position has associated risks and that is why we choose to compromise realising that sometimes we are in a position where we have to accept the lesser of two evils. 

The type of questions we would need to ask would be:

-        What happens if you don’t get what you want

-        How would this impact you?

-        How would this impact your community?

-        What other options might be available?

Having a national conversation is no small task.  However the principles are simple and their implementation is absolutely possible.  There is an opportunity to start having a conversation with respect and dignity notwithstanding the fact that we have divergent views.  Polarised positions might get us what we want and even what we think is right, they also feed the drama we enjoy when we open our daily newspaper.  However, they prohibit the development of creative workable solutions that are potentially more directed towards the common good and successful outcomes. Brexit provides the opportunity for deep cultural change away from hate and towards collaboration. For this to happen, we will have to compromise and, at times, lose. If we are prepared to do this, we can, as communities and a country win big.


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