The Brexit deal is the perfect Prisoner's Dilemma

by Andrew Anthony / 09 December, 2018
Pro-Brexit and Europe protesters campaign outside Parliament in the UK. Photo/Getty Images

Pro-Brexit and Europe protesters campaign outside Parliament in the UK. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Brexit deal

In the Prisoner's Dilemma, going after what you want – freedom – might get you the very worst outcome. It's Brexit, in other words.

Back in the 1950s, someone at the RAND Corporation in the United States called a particular game theory the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this game, two prisoners are offered the chance to inform on each other or remain silent. If neither speaks, they both go down for a year. If one snitches, he goes free and the other gets three years. And if both snitch, they each serve two years.

It’s used as a model in many real-life situations that involve co-operation and conflict, partly because, like real life, it contains a series of fiendishly uncertain options involving notoriously unpredictable human motivations. The dilemma is that in going after what you want – freedom – you might end up with the very worst outcome.

Seldom has this model seemed more apposite than in the political dilemma in which the British Parliament is imprisoned. By December 12 in New Zealand, we’ll know which way bluffing, double-bluffing and triple-bluffing politicians decided to play the game.

The game, of course, is Brexit. If they backed Theresa May, they get the one-year-sentence option – a deal that no one actually wants, but nonetheless enjoys the distinct benefit of being better than No Deal. If they don’t back her, MPs will be hoping it will mean she’ll be forced to come up with something better from Europe or seek a second referendum (the equivalent, in game terms, of freedom – though not necessarily from Europe).

But, as Europe has insisted there isn’t going to be any further negotiation, then the prospect of No Deal looms threateningly large. The Governor of the Bank of England has warned it will lead to a big recession, as well as quite possibly plague, famine and eternal market servitude to Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The one good thing about these kinds of crises is that they invariably throw up a freshly minted neologism or a previously unused word that suddenly no news report or political announcement can be allowed to pass without including.

And this current identity crisis-cum-national meltdown has produced … “backstop”. We don’t play baseball in Britain, nor really in Europe, so backstop is a foreign import of the kind – like chlorinated chickens and hormonally treated pork – we may well be seeing much more of. For the moment, backstop is everywhere except, of course, on the sports field – because, as we say in England, that’s not cricket.

In the Brexit context, backstop refers to the provision in the 585-page withdrawal agreement (full disclosure: I’ve not read it) that covers the interim customs arrangement with Europe. It’s been put in to get around the border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Hardline Brexiteers claim that it’s effectively a means of keeping the UK in the Customs Union, which they believe means Britain will be tethered to Europe indefinitely.

As hardline Brexiteers are by and large from the barking wing of the Tory party that feels the country’s been going downhill since 1945, they might be accused of paranoia. However, leaked legal advice to the Prime Minister – due to be released after a Parliamentary defeat – suggests that they’re on to something.

So what will the British Parliament do? My best guess is that MPs will reject May’s deal for two reasons. The first is that it pleases no one except, apparently, May herself. But the second reason, I think, is that Britain’s politicians have become so hopelessly paralysed by the Brexit process that no one has the will to do anything that moves things forward. We’ve created our own Groundhog Day, and we are fated to spend every hour talking about backstops until Andie MacDowell comes to bed and rescues us.

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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