From the "Mastermind" of the Vote Leave campaign - In sum: history as bunch of small things and random chance. Best of luck!
I am not clever, I have a hopeless memory, and have almost no proper ‘circle of competence’. I made lots of mistakes in the campaign. I have had success in building and managing teams. This success has not relied on a single original insight of any kind. It comes from applying what Charlie Munger calls unrecognised simplicities of effective action that one can see implemented by successful people/organisations.
Effective because they work reliably, simple enough that even I could implement them, and ‘unrecognised’ because they are hiding in plain sight but are rarely stolen and used. I found 10-15 highly motivated people who knew what they were doing and largely left them to get on with it while stopping people who did not know what they were doing interfering with them, we worked out a psychologically compelling simple story, and we applied some simple management principles that I will write about another time. It is hard to overstate the relative importance in campaigns of message over resources. Our success is an extreme example given the huge imbalance in forces on either side. In many ways Trump’s victory has little resemblance to what we did but in this respect he is another example.
We also got lucky.
In January 2014 I left the Department for Education and spent the next 18 months away from politics. A few days after the 2015 election I wrote a blog about Michael Gove’s new job touching on the referendum. When I wrote it I assumed I would carry on studying and would not be involved in it. About ten days later I was asked by an assortment of MPs, rich businessmen, and campaigners including Matthew Elliott to help put together an organisation that could fight the referendum. I was very reluctant and prevaricated but ended up agreeing. I left my happy life away from SW1 and spent eight weeks biking around London persuading people to take what was likely to be a car crash career decision – to quit their jobs and join a low probability proposition: hacking the political system to win a referendum against almost every force with power and money in politics. In September we had an office, in October ‘Vote Leave’ went public, in April we were designated the official campaign, 10 weeks later we won.
I’ve learned over the years that ‘rational discussion’ accomplishes almost nothing in politics, particularly with people better educated than average. Most educated people are not set up to listen or change their minds about politics, however sensible they are in other fields. But I have also learned that when you say or write something, although it has roughly zero effect on powerful/prestigious people or the immediate course of any ‘debate’, you are throwing seeds into a wind and are often happily surprised. A few years ago I wrote something that was almost entirely ignored in SW1 but someone at Harvard I’d never met read it. This ended up having a decisive effect on the referendum.
A warning. Politics is not a field which meets the two basic criteria for true expertise (see below). An effect of this is that arguments made by people who win are taken too seriously. People in my position often see victory as confirmation of ideas they had before victory but people often win for reasons they never understand or even despite their own efforts. Cameron’s win in 2015 was like this – he fooled himself about some of the reasons why he’d won and this error contributed to his errors on the referendum. Maybe Leave won regardless of or even despite my ideas. Maybe I’m fooling myself like Cameron. Some of my arguments below have as good an empirical support as is possible in politics (i.e. not very good objectively) but most of them do not even have that. Also, it is clear that almost nobody agrees with me about some of my general ideas. It is more likely that I am wrong than 99% of people who work in this field professionally. Still, cognitive diversity is inherently good for political analysis so I’ll say what I think and others will judge if there’s anything to learn.
Discussions about things like ‘why did X win/lose?’ are structured to be misleading and I could not face trying to untangle everything. There are strong psychological pressures that lead people to create post facto stories that seem to add up to ‘I always said X and X happened.’ Even if people do not think this at the start they rapidly construct psychologically appealing stories that overwrite memories. Many involved with this extraordinary episode feel the need to justify themselves and this means a lot of rewriting of history. I also kept no diary so I have no clear source for what I really thought other than some notes here and there. I already know from talking to people that my lousy memory has conflated episodes, tried to impose patterns that did not actually exist and so on – all the usual psychological issues. To counter all this in detail would require going through big databases of emails, printouts of appointment diaries, notebooks and so on, and even then I would rarely be able to reconstruct reliably what I thought. Life’s too short.
It is hard to explain the depth of TV derangement that gobbles up SW1 souls. Much of politics involves very similar tragi-comic scenes re-created by some of the basic atoms of human nature – fear, self-interest and vanity. The years, characters, and contexts change, the atoms shuffle, but the stories are the same year after year, century after century. Delusions and vanity dominate ‘rationality’ and ‘public service’. Progress, when it comes, is driven by the error-correcting institutions of science and markets when political institutions limit the damage done by decision makers at the apex of centralised hierarchies. It rarely comes from those people, and, when it does, it is usually accidental or incidental to their motives.
Reality has branching histories, not ‘a big why’
Much political analysis revolves around competing simple stories based on one big factor such that, in retrospect, ‘it was always clear that immigration would trump economic interest / Cameron’s negotiation was never going to be enough / there is an unstoppable populist tide’, and so on. Alternatives are quickly thought to have been impossible (even if X argued the exact opposite repeatedly). The big event must have had an equally big single cause. Confirmation bias kicks in and evidence seeming to suggest that what actually happened would happen looms larger. People who are quite wrong quickly persuade themselves they were ‘mostly right’ and ‘had a strong feeling’ unlike, of course, the blind fools around them. Soon our actual history seems like the only way things could have played out. Brexit had to happen. Trump had to win.
You see these dynamics all the time in historical accounts. History tends to present the 1866 war between Prussia and Austria as almost inevitable but historians spend much less time on why Bismarck pulled back from war in 1865 and how he might have done the same in 1866 (actually he prepared the ground so he could do this and he kept the option open until the last minute). The same is true about 1870. When some generals tried to bounce him into a quick preventive war against Russia in the late 1880s he squashed them flat warning against tying the probability of a Great Power war to ‘the passions of sheep stealers’ in the Balkans (a lesson even more important today than then). If he had wanted a war, students would now be writing essays on why the Russo-German War of 1888 was ‘inevitable’. Many portray the war that broke out in August 1914 as ‘inevitable’ but many decisions in the preceding month could have derailed it, just as decisions derailed general war in previous Balkan crises. Few realise how lucky we were to avoid nuclear war during the Cuban Missile crisis (cf. Vasili Arkhipov) and other terrifying near-miss nuclear wars. The whole 20th Century history of two world wars and a nuclear Cold War might have been avoided if one of the assassination attempts on Bismarck had succeeded. If Cohen-Blind’s aim had been very slightly different in May 1866 when he fired five bullets at Bismarck, then the German states would certainly have evolved in a different way and it is quite plausible that there would have been no unified German army with its fearsome General Staff, no World War I, no Lenin and Hitler, and so on. The branching histories are forgotten and the actual branch taken, often because of some relatively trivial event casting a huge shadow (perhaps as small as a half-second delay by Cohen-Blind), seems overwhelmingly probable. This ought to, but does not, make us apply extreme intelligent focus to those areas that can go catastrophically wrong, like accidental nuclear war, to try to narrow the range of possible histories but instead most people in politics spend almost all their time on trivia.
We evolved to make sense of this nonlinear and unpredictable world with stories. These stories are often very powerful. On one hand the work of Kahneman et al on ‘irrationality’ has given an exaggerated impression. The fact that we did not evolve to think as natural Bayesians does not make us as ‘irrational’ as some argue. We evolved to avoid disasters where the probability of disaster X happening was unknowable but the outcome was fatal. Rationality is more than ‘Bayesian updating’. On the other hand our stories do often obscure the branching histories of reality and they remain the primary way in which history is told. The mathematical models that illuminate complex reality in the physical sciences do not help us much with history yet. Only recently has reliable data science begun to play an important role in politics.
Andrew Marr wrote recently about the referendum with a classic post facto ‘big event must be caused by one big factor’ story:
‘Connected to this is the big “why?”. I don’t think we voted to leave the EU because of clever tacticians or not-quite-clever-enough pollsters, or even because Johnson decided that one of his columns was better than another. I think we voted to leave because so many British people had been left behind economically and culturally for so long, and were furious about it; and because, from the 2008 financial crisis onwards, they had accumulated so much contempt for the political elites. In these circumstances any referendum narrows down to a single question: “Are you happy with the way things are?” The answer was “no”.’ Andrew Marr, October 2016.
‘The big why?’ is psychologically appealing but it is a mistake. In general terms it is the wrong way to look at history and it is specifically wrong about the referendum. If it were accurate we would have won by much more than we did given millions who were not ‘happy with the way things are’ and would like to be out of the EU reluctantly voted IN out of fear. Such stories oversimplify and limit thinking about the much richer reality of branching histories.
Much more at the link - as the author said: he would have made it shorter but he didn't have the time.
Over, Under, Around or Through.
Anticipating the triumph of Thomas Reid.
"One thing that being a scientist has taught me is that you can never be certain about anything. You never know the truth. You can only approach it and hope to get a bit nearer to it each time. You iterate towards the truth. You don’t know it.” - James Lovelock
Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others. [Ambrose Bierce, 1911]