What does ‘How Change Happens’ thinking tell us about Brexit?

liberation brexit coverI was in Lisbon running a ‘How Change Happens’ summer school when the Brexit news came in, so I thought I’d apply an HCH analysis to a seismic event. I’m not an expert on UK politics, so this is bound to be pretty uninformed compared to the avalanche of post mortems in the press, but let’s see where it goes.

First up a disclaimer. As Timothy Garton Ash put it in a brilliant piece for the Guardian on Saturday ‘A
universal truth: nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards.’

I went back to the Context/Institutions/Agents/Events typology I used in From Poverty to Power. I’ll run through some of those, then reflect on what’s missing.

Context: Multiple long-term shifts influenced the result. Demographics: An ageing population combined with higher propensity to vote among older people who are much more Brexit demographicslikely to be anti-EU (see table). Globalization and rising inequality prompted a deep sense of alienation and disconnect from the decisions of those in power. Syria and Europe’s half-hearted response both fueled a sense of an island under siege and further discredited the EU project.

Institutions: A deep democratic deficit/hollowing out at all levels. The Eurozone meltdown tarnished the EU’s already damaged reputation. The 2008 financial crisis led to a general feeling of malaise and the MPs expenses scandal deepened scepticism about politicians and their arguments. No-one believes ‘we are all in this together’ any more. As John Cruddas argues, the Labour Party seems to have become the voice of the liberal metropolis, unable to respond to the sense of an Englishness under threat, as Tyler Cowen puts it.

Then there’s the institution of the referendum itself, which offers the public the chance to make a one-time statement on the state of the nation – a form of mass therapy in which it proved impossible to keep the focus on EU membership when people wanted to give the government a kicking on entirely separate issues, like ‘too many Muslims’.

Agents: Where to start? In terms of leadership, this useful piece identifies 12 key players and their referendum press biasroles. You could count the press as either agents or institutions, but they were clearly stacked in favour of Brexit by those other influential agents, their owners. Leading players’ motives were in many cases petty and careerist/party positioning, compared to the profound consequences of the vote, and the aftermath is surely likely to ratchet up public disillusionment and anger, especially among Leave voters who saw promises being broken within days of the vote, and who may well end up suffering the most from the debacle of the next few years.

But the key agents are, I suppose, the voters themselves, 17 million of whom expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo, their sense of a way of life under threat and poked a remote and arrogant political elite in the eye. It may have been a national outburst of nostalgia for a world seen through rose-tinted specs, or an excessive fear of the future and change, but it was obviously deeply felt by many, and too glibly dismissed by the establishment (remember Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy?).

Events: While some relatively distant events such as the financial crisis, or the Syrian exodus, clearly influenced the poll, the only major event of the campaign was Jo Cox’s murder, which had much less impact than we anticipated (in the end, her constituency even voted Leave).

That provides a kind of X ray of the forces and actors involved, but misses some big pieces:

Powerful narrative, shame about the content
Powerful narrative, shame about the content

Narratives and Norms: The hollowing out of democratic debate has been accompanied by a transition to ‘post-truth politics’, in which experts and expertise of all kinds are dismissed and people are urged to vote on their feelings. At the same time, the level of alienation is such that many people seemed to think the referendum would have no impact on anything real, so voted Leave as a protest vote. One interesting post mortem goes even further:

Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences. 

Having seen the initial meltdown after last Thursday, many Leavers are reportedly having second thoughts about this odd form of electoral nihilism – promptly christened ‘Regrexit’.

The referendum result was the strongest proof yet that in many circumstances, narrative trumps remain word cloud

Social Media word clouds show the different narratives at work
Social Media word clouds show the different narratives at work

evidence. ‘Take back control’ and anxiety about immigration resonated more than any number of ‘IMF predicts Brexit would trigger recession’ type headlines. No-one believes it will affect them. It’s feelings not facts, people.

One dog that didn’t bark was that the vote was gender neutral. I would have expected a gender bias in favour of remain, especially given the male face and machismo of the Leave campaign – anyone seen a good gender analysis?

Coalitions: There weren’t two sides in this, there were dozens, forced by the referendum into uncomfortable cohabitation. As my friend Matthew Lockwood says ‘the Leave vote is actually made up of some distinct different constituencies: some hard core libertarians, some neo-liberals, some old fashioned Tory nationalists, then the populist working class left-behind group. Their agendas are actually incompatible and the wheels will come off, arguably already are.’ The same equally applies to the Remainers, who couldn’t even get Tory and Labour leaders (both supporters) on the same platform.

Dynamics: So put that all together and we have a perfect storm, a spectacular own goal prompted by demography, the big tides of post 2008 Europe, the hollowing out of British democracy, David Cameron’s preference for tactics over strategy, Labour’s leadership vacuum, and ‘events, dear boy’ as Harold MacMillan, another UK PM, apparently never said.

Attribution: This is really just a list of contributory factors, but how on earth could you even try to weight the importance of these different factors, given that they are apples and pears and all feed off each other? Over to the measurement gurus on that one.

Overall, this exercise and framework feels like a handy way of synthesizing multiple factors, rather than adding any particular explanatory power. Useful?

What have I missed? Over to you and do please suggest links to good analytical post mortems – this is going to be a case study for decades to come!

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16 Responses to “What does ‘How Change Happens’ thinking tell us about Brexit?”
  1. Franziska Mager

    Really useful framework Duncan! Where does the voter *during* the campaign process come into the equation, when people are malleable? I think that the feeling of exclusion and frustration witht the status quo allowed for a more effective mobilization on the Leave side. See e.g. on social media: “(…) more passionate, active and outspoken in their online behavior”. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/25/business/brexit-talk-on-social-media-heavily-favored-the-leave-side.html?_r=1

  2. Ros Hircshowitz

    The win for Brexit is shocking, especially for those of us who live outside the UK, and are not UK citizens. This outcome is, in my view, the result of an inward-looking, petty and xenophobic society. It threw a collective temper tantrum, and then had a knee-jerk reaction. It scapegoated the wrong organisation and the wrong people. The EU is not responsible for austerity measures introduced by your government. Foreigners and immigrants are not to blame for your small-minded grievances. Are the leaders calling for Brexit really important, or are they merely reflecting the “up yours – we are the only humans that count” attitudes of the English and Welsh people? Shame on you!

    • Pete

      Ouch! that’s a damning indictment of about 17 million British voters, many of whom are in a saturated job market where a huge influx of labour from poorer European countries has contributed to a fall in employment standards. Worrying about a future life on zero hours contracts at a minimum wage does not count as a small-minded grievance to most people.

      There are others who just don’t like the lack of democratic accountability in the EU. Older people may be scared of a world that is changing faster than they can understand. Shame on them?

      Shame on us? I doubt many pro-Brexit voters read this blog.

  3. Suzanne

    Interested to hear your perspective on the dimension around young people, with 75% voting remain, and at other end of spectrum, 65 plus, voting leave. You’ve touched on the nostalgia of the latter, but the consequences of/ for young people? Migration out of UK, brain drain, ironic no?

    Came across this wisdom from Ben Okri: “Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerngs”.

  4. Thanks for this Duncan. Firstly, thanks for being brave enough to apply your “How Change Happens” framework to the UK’s referendum. I guess my feedback would be a series of questions: how would this analysis be used, whose action might it inform, and how would that work given the huge – likely intractable – attribution problems you mention? These are the sorts of questions that those of us who work on governance assessments and diagnostics fall asleep worrying about; your nudge to think about them in a familiar (to me) context, is very helpful.

    And secondly, for not dismissing glibly the preferences of 17 million people, something that I’ve seen too many people do over recent days. +1 for Pete’s comment. And I thought this piece, by Glenn Greenwald, was spot on on this. https://theintercept.com/2016/06/25/brexit-is-only-the-latest-proof-of-the-insularity-and-failure-of-western-establishment-institutions/

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Alan, what I’ve found is that the Context/Institutions/Agents/Events approach is a useful start for exploring past chagne processes. It gets everything out onto the table. What it does not do is really uncover the dynamics of a given change process – a timeline would help with that, because then you could start to map the alliances, accidents etc. On attribution, I honestly think it’s a mug’s game to try and say something like ‘internal Tory Party politics explains x% of the change, while long term demographic shifts explains y%’ – so what does that mean for our approach to measuring results? As I said in the piece, over to the MEListas on that one.
      What I’ve done in the book is try to shift from looking at past change to looking forward – how do we get better at influencing future change? That takes you in different directions – systems thinking, feedback loops, rapid response to changing circumstances etc.

  5. Matt G

    Good read Duncan. I’m out with countless others as a post-Brexit expert now even more appalled at having been given the responsibility of a vote and responsibility too, I guess, for the consequences (what on earth were they thinking?). I think your point about the “institution of the referendum itself” is important. I don’t deny the result (and agree with Pete above), just the entire process behind it. If you give enough genuinely disaffected, disillusioned people a binary choice between the status quo and change, we shouldn’t be so very surprised? I’m going to be as interested in your next blog, please, about what opportunities exist not to waste (how many?) crises this event is creating?

  6. Roy Trivedy

    Interesting analysis Duncan.One aspect that appears to be under emphasised here is that the way that people voted was not not just determined during the few weeks of the referendum campaign but by many peoples experience of ‘being part of the EU’. This is reflected in Jon Cruddas’ piece. My belief is that one of the most significant failures of the pro-EU group (I include myself in that), has been our inability to engage and inform most UK citizens on European wide issues. Even relatively well informed members of the public know little about who their MEPs are; what critical debates are taking place in the EU and Europe (more widely); and what position(s) the UK representatives are taking on these issues. Before the referendum date was set, there was an almost complete absence of this kind of information being regularly provided to UK citizens – which I would argue is vital for people’s understanding of the UK role in Europe and Europe’s relevance in a fast changing world. Sadly even after the date was set, much of this kind of information remained a mystery for most of t he UK electorate. There are vital lessons here for organising citizen movements.

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Roy, but also, one analysis (linked to in the piece) argues that the main leaver areas were those worst affected by industrial decline and austerity under Mrs Thatcher, not the more recent variety. Produced long term alienation that found expression in the vote.

  7. Kate

    I think that there are some interesting narratives/norms to explore around the concept of ‘democracy’ and particularly our own lack of familiarity here with how referenda operate and can best be managed. And secondly a kind of ‘punishment’ or ‘ultimatum’ thinking which is antithetical to learning and which may prevent us moving forward in the most constructive ways.

    I have been struck by the number of statements since the referendum of the nature: ‘the people have spoken, that is democracy, it’s done now, move on’ etc. This article by Kenneth Rogoff at Harvard points out the paucity of discussion we had prior to the referendum about how the results should be interpreted, and what kind of basis for action they would provide. It seems crazy now that no-one was pushing for this to be clearer but I think it reflects our national lack of familiarity with referenda. ‘This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence – far greater even than amending a country’s constitution (of course, the United Kingdom lacks a written one) – has been made without any appropriate checks and balances.’ https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/brexit-democratic-failure-for-uk-by-kenneth-rogoff-2016-06

    Secondly, and I am finding this harder to articulate but I am sure others can, there’s a sort of Presbyterian ‘you’ve made your bed now lie in it’ finality to the discussion which I also think taps into our deeper cultural narratives here. We are being told we can’t put our hands up as a nation and say, ‘Sorry, we’ve f*cked this one up, we didn’t really mean it, can we change our minds’? But in business and development organizations around the world we are supposed to be embracing failure, failing better, learning and improving, and acknowledging that change processes are continuous. Can’t we bring some of that into our political discourse too? Maybe we can fail better a second time around. The people have not spoken for ever. This is just what some of them said, last Thursday. They’d say something different today. Or tomorrow, or in a year’s time.

  8. Amanda Bangura

    Many thanks in deed Duncan for this incredibly helpful analysis. You’ve managed (somehow) to be clinical about the referendum and its outcomes, rather than get wrapped up in the emotion of it – not easy to do I’m sure, but critical at this time if we want to ‘beat the historians’ to a full understanding and think about how to affect change in the future, as you noted in your response to one comment.
    I’m afraid I’m new to HCH methodology (would certainly be interested in attending one of your summer schools) and so please do forgive my ignorance if my question is not relevant. That said, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the schooling system within the UK and wonder if that is useful context to consider. I am 30 years old so hopefully young enough to remember key aspects of my learning in school, and I don’t remember learning a thing about EU; its origins, aims, or ways of working. Equally, I know many nationalised Brits who were forced to learn about the location of the first ATM in UK in order to obtain citizenship, rather than learn about the nation’s engagement with EU. Does this lack of engagement from early ages/early experiences as a citizen provide useful fodder for a contextual understanding of the referendum?

  9. Tim W

    I think that it is far too complex to work out the individual reasoning for voting for 17 million people, and to try to define everything on statistics. It gives a helpful overview but a slightly skewed picture. For example, someone in my family works in the tech industry, is pretty wealthy and voted out, purely on his view of what the European Union was becoming – too powerful, not enough accountability from the nation states etc. I think many people voted like this with an eye on the future of what the EU was becoming (too political and too power mad) – how else can you explain the older vote putting all their pensions and shareholding secondary to ‘an emotional vote’ to leave? It’s a shame for me that the vote for independence is seen to be completely at odds with a globalists view, when I personally don’t believe it is. It is also a shame that the right wing extremism is being painted as one of the main reasons for voting out. For me this is a piece of propaganda to keep everyone in line with a global thinking ie: anything that is at odds with the global agenda is intolerant, xenophobic and anti-diversity. For me, this is a major misjudgement and is a misunderstanding of intent.

  10. Amir

    Brexit was the sign of a major paradigm shift, a transition from Capitalism to a fair system based on taxation and social responsibility.
    The Fed has tried to postpone the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, but this time a huge amount of cash should be deflated to recover the world economy.
    Most southern European countries and US pay the cost.