BREXIT: More Leadership Lessons in Persuasion

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 18th January 2019

After a very turbulent period in the UK where a proposal on leaving the EU from the UK Government has been defeated by the largest margin in 100 years, and where more than 100 of the Government’s own MPs voted against it, it is worth reflecting on the leadership lessons therein.

Whatever any observer’s political affiliations or stance in the EU referendum, it is abundantly clear that the Government, Cabinet and Prime Minister have been unconvincing in putting forward their arguments. How much of that is due to the relative strength of their case and how much is due to the way it has been presented is a very moot point.

Brexit: More Lessons in Persuasion

I certainly accept that the situation is extremely complex and that there is no clear ‘one right answer’ for all. That being said, the way the ‘debate’ around Brexit has been ‘managed’ is a salutary lesson for any leader in a challenging environment. Which is most or all of us. It was clear from the day of the referendum result that the nation and public opinion had been widely divided. The way such a huge, complex and strategic decision had been turned into a simple binary ‘in/out’ vote ensured that was the outcome. A lesson in itself. Too often big decisions are over-simplified, ostensibly to make them easy to explain or understand, but really just missing out all the important details that would enable people to make an informed decision.

Instead of a nuanced and rational debate about the complexities before the date of the vote, we got tribal, inflammatory bullying tactics from the leave campaign and smugly complacent platitudes from remain. A simple wall was erected, like a battle line (are you listening Mr President?) and the population duly assembled themselves on either side according to whatever partial knowledge they possessed or their personal views and prejudices. Since then, each side has thrown grenades over the wall, full of empty rhetoric and unsupported assertions yet with neither engaging in any rational debate about the practical future, our preferred strategy or the best way to resolve the conundrum.

In the chamber at Westminster, the same charade was played out, often in public, and has taken the country, as I write, to the brink of a no-deal exit from the EU….  and I still don’t understand the implications of that either, because it’s never been fully debated or communicated. After 2 ½ years.

It seems to me that those in power decided at the outset that the population (or the media) were too stupid to understand the fine details and so they should just be persuaded with crumbs and dire threats of an impending Armageddon, either economic or social (depending on whether you sided with the ‘Ins’ or the ‘Outs’) and bandying around terms like ‘sovereignty’ or ‘taking back control’ or ‘economic suicide’ and inflammatory imagery such as ‘gridlocked lorries queueing at the borders’ or ‘empty supermarket shelves’ or a myriad of other inflated half-truths. Some of the numbers being touted defy logical acceptance. An associate (a highly intelligent company director of a multi-million-pound organisation) recently told me that “it would cost £20 billion just to replace the regulations and standards in their sector”. Which, given that they are already in place and can, I would think, be easy enough to replicate, seems unlikely at best.

But that’s the problem with keeping people in the dark and just feeding them any distorted piece of nonsense to make them join your ‘side’. It comes back to haunt you – whether it’s written on a bus or not – and in any case, there are no ‘sides’ here… we’re all in this together before or after March 29th and whatever ‘deal’ we agree or don’t agree. This has been crying out for leadership from day one. I have yet to see any signs. Leaders: watch, listen, reflect and learn.

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