We don’t always know how it ends. But we should have a pretty good idea.
It’s been quite the week in my home country. Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to resign, finally bested by the impossibilities of Brexit. Last week’s European Parliament elections revealed deep but expected divisions over where we go next. Being up front about my inclinations as a European, I take a small amount of solace from the level of support garnered by the pro-EU parties.
Somewhere else I find solace, when the day to day grind of politics in 2019 gets too much? The West Wing. Yes, this might date me but … I’m a massive West Wing fan. I devoured it when it was fresh and, although it now feels more than a little anachronistic, I just keep coming back. Sometimes the beautifully crafted idealism of a Sorkin monologue is exactly what you need.
Favorite character? Favorite episode? Impossible to say. How do you pick between Josh and CJ, between Abbey and Donna? Or between the cheerful comedy of The Indians in the Lobby and the intense character drama of Two Cathedrals? You don’t.
I’ve always particularly admired Leo McGarry, particularly for the moments where he squares off against his President. Because as a trusted advisor, a consigliere, you have to be prepared to speak your mind. I admire Aaron Sorkin, too, for the emphasis he puts on the trusted advisor role as played not just by Leo but by CJ, Toby, Josh, Sam and so many others. Too often, political fiction portrays leadership through the lens of the “Great Man” theory, placing the emphasis simplistically on one protagonist. The reality is that even great political leaders have limited bandwidth and must rely on advisors just as CEOs do. In either circumstance, a broad spectrum of reasoned advice should lead to a rational, risk averse decision-making process.
One Leo/Jed interaction sprang to mind as I watched the outgoing PM deliver her address outside Number Ten:
Tell me how this ends, Leo! You want me to start something that may have
serious repercussions on American foreign policy for decades, but you don’t
know how it ends.
[shouting] We don’t always know how it ends!
(Season 6 episode 1: NSF Thurmont)
Sorry, Leo – not good enough. I’m a huge fan, I really am. But as your principal’s most senior, trusted advisor, you’ve got to have more than that. Figure it out, to run the scenarios, look at the options. It’s your job to inform the decision-making process. You can’t completely eliminate the risk jumping off a cliff with no idea what comes next, but you have to mitigate it.
Which brings me back to Brexit.
The UK invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union on 29 March 2017 – “triggering Article 50,” as it’s become known. There was no compulsion to do so. The Leave campaign had promised, “Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop – we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave.” Indeed immediately after the June 2016 referendum, some were wondering whether triggering article 50 would ever happen.
And yet the UK chose to jump, before any negotiation had begun, not knowing what came next, starting the clock ticking on a two-year negotiation which, ultimately, would prove to be an exercise in constructing a political venn diagram with no overlap, a Brexit ‘Impossibility Triangle.’
In taking the decision to jump Mrs. May will of course have had a plethora of advisors seeking to sway her in one direction or the other. We know that Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former man in Brussels who knows more about the workings of the EU than most, had warned against invoking Article 50 too soon. But it was political pressure from ardent Brexiteers, calling for Article 50 to be triggered despite their McGarry-esque position of not knowing what lay ahead, that won the day.
This is not meant to be yet another political obituary of Theresa May. Plenty of those abound – many of them clearly drafted well in advance, to be kept on the stocks for when the inevitable happened. That inevitability was ensured in October 2016, Mrs. May committed to triggering Article 50 in the first quarter of 2017 come hell or high water, needlessly weakening her negotiating hand while having no real plan for what lay ahead.
If there was one decision, one moment, one inflection point that ensured Theresa May’s ultimate downfall, this was surely it. My point here is simply that listening to better advice – to the right advice – mitigates risk and empowers our negotiating position. When we don’t know how it ends, perhaps we should step back from the brink and think a little before we conclude that taking a leap into the unknown is really the best and only course of action.