No Time For Game Theory

"Credibility" is a sort of shadow-play in which sincerity is always understood to be instrumental, a token, something more or less successfully faked.

In a recent article reflecting on the (first) 2017 General Election, the right-wing economist Andrew Lilico speculates in the following terms on the motivations of younger voters:

We also need to better grasp the cosmetic impact for young people of policies such as those on EU citizens. In my experience, younger people could not understand any good reason for threatening to deport three million people and did not always have the historical perspective to be confident that wouldn’t really happen. They saw it as hateful and I suspect it was an important motivation to get out and vote.

The imputation is that young people, lacking any deeper understanding of the interests and strategies in play, were moved by a “cosmetic” and emotional reaction to Theresa May’s stance on the right of EU workers to remain and continue working in Britain. Since “all that matters now is stopping Corbyn”, Lilico suggests that measures be taken to mollify young voters, such as offering “a political guarantee that whatever cut-off date is used for changing the rights of EU citizens, anyone here by June 23 2016 will be allowed to stay and work”: this is not quite the same as conceding that they may actually have had a point.

What is the “historical perspective” to which Lilico alludes, and what possible “good reason” might there be for “threatening to deport three million people”? An “historical perspective” taking in the forced mass migrations and expulsions of the past two centuries - to say nothing of the current, ongoing refugee crisis - would not seem to give grounds for confidence that things will turn out all right in the end. Many EU citizens of my acquaintance are genuinely worried about their position; their concern isn’t the sort of warm-hearted solicitude for the wellbeing of others that Lilico presumably finds superficial, but is based on a clear-eyed evaluation of the risks directly affecting them.

I would like to suggest that the “good reason” Theresa May has for placing the livelihood of three million people in doubt is actually very well understood by young voters, and that it belongs to a wider political logic which, in rallying to Corbyn and the 2017 Labour Manifesto, they are explicitly rejecting. The same logic is behind the ridiculous and tiresome spectacle of media figures repeatedly attempting to “corner” Corbyn on the topic of nuclear retaliation. As the comedian Frankie Boyle astutely observes, honour would very nearly have been satisfied if Corbyn had openly declared that he was ready and willing to order a nuclear first strike against Russia, whilst winking broadly at the camera. The point isn’t that you have to mean it, but that you have to be prepared to say it as if you mean it. (The wink would have undermined that, of course). One of the things that the UK political class demands of its leaders is “credibility” on this subject, which has come to be positioned as an index of political “credibility” in general: the received wisdom before the election was that May possessed this (indeed, it was her prime political asset), and Corbyn didn’t. Now, like so many other things, it turns out that it doesn’t matter in quite the way, or to quite the degree, that we were constantly being exhorted to treat it as mattering.

“Credibility”, in this context, means the ability to present a negotiating position that is ruinously extreme and unreasonable on its face, in order to convince a negotiating partner to make concessions so that this position will be taken off the table. Your opponent must believe that you are willing to risk disaster, or must at least be expected to behave as if they believe it. This confrontation between two “as if”s - one party making a threat as if they intend to carry it out, the other offering concessions as if they take the threat seriously - is seen by many in the political class as the essence of politics. It’s how the sort of (frankly, loathsome) people who aspire to eminence in the Oxford Union carry on in their dealings with their rivals and co-conspirators. The politics of which this is the essence is a sort of shadow-play in which sincerity is always understood to be instrumental, a token, something more or less successfully faked.

Corbyn has managed to practice consistently, and has come to represent personally, an alternative approach to politics in which credibility comes from building trust: people believe what you say because they’ve seen you act on it, risk something for it, rather than because you can maintain a convincing posture of “strength” or willingness to go nuclear. Core to this is his rejection of the friend/enemy distinction as the basis for political organisation. In Corbyn’s view, you speak to Hamas, or the IRA, as “friends” not because you are fundamentally in agreement with their politics or condone their activities, but because you want to negotiate with them on a basis of increasing trust and inclusivity, rather than as Cold War-era nuclear antagonists trying to stare each other down. Corbyn’s recent letter to Theresa May concerning the Grenfell Tower disaster illustrates this well. He writes:

Whilst I believe that the policies and priorities of your government in the arenas of social housing and public safety are legitimate targets for my criticism, I hope we both share a determination to discover the truths underpinning this tragedy so to avoid any repetition. For these reasons, in support of my hope to publicly welcome your decision, I would appreciate early consultation on your government’s proposed Inquiry Terms of Reference.

This is not without guile, and it is certainly not unchallenging, but it is at the same time a sincere offer of co-operation. Because the offer is fundamentally reasonable on the face of it, May is placed in the position where she would, quite rightly, have to justify any decision which fell short of demonstrating a commitment to “discover the truths underpinning this tragedy”.

Corbyn’s letter works to establish a standard which both he and May can either live up to or default from. His credibility in the matter rests on his trustworthiness: the degree to which he can be expected not to default. The outcome he is seeking is not one in which he can gain the edge over an opponent, but rather one in which he can “publicly welcome” May’s decision because she has chosen to do the right thing. The record of Corbyn’s interactions in Parliament with the former Prime Minister David Cameron shows that he was repeatedly prepared to be gracious when his opposite number’s government had done something praiseworthy. His lack of “killer instinct” in these encounters was often criticised as a mark of political ineffectiveness, but in fact it was perfectly consistent with the negotiating stance taken in this letter to May, a letter which is far more likely to have caused her serious discomfort than any amount of antagonistic browbeating.

I do not want to suggest that Corbyn is some sort of political saint, or that the novelty and value of his approach to politics rests entirely on his authenticity, sincerity or generosity. It is not so much a matter of his distinctive personal qualities as of the political logic which guides his behaviour. Rather than the logic of mutually-assured destruction, of low- or zero-trust political manoeuvring, he has adopted a high-trust, co-operative approach which aims at non-zero-sum outcomes. For the Tories, whose political logic is founded on the friend/enemy distinction, there are winners and losers, and your task in politics is to make sure that you and your friends are the winners and your enemies are the losers. The promise of “hard Brexit” is a promise to make this happen: to try to “win” in negotiations with the European Union by threatening a disastrous outcome if special consideration is not given to Britain’s demands. This is similar to the promise made by Donald Trump to the US electorate: vote for me, and I will “put America first”, using my strength and cunning to “win” against the rest of the world. Trump’s reputation as a swindler and a bully who has consistently cheated his business partners may have made him seem like the sort of person who could do this and get away with it - an ugly and reprehensible champion, but an effective one. May went to the electorate with a promise that she, too, was prepared to be ugly and reprehensible in support of British interests: a “bloody difficult woman”, no less. But as Craig Murray has noted, outside of the political fantasies of House of Cards LARPers this is not how diplomacy works: “the art of negotiation” is not at all like Trump’s infantile conception of “the art of the deal”. For perhaps the first time in decades, it appears that the Tories underestimated the emotional maturity of the British electorate. Corbyn’s appeal, and his astonishing success in the election, is due in part to the fact that he gave them something better to live up to.