An expert witness view on the art of negotiation
Every time I put pen to paper on Brexit, anything I write is out of date by the time it comes to be posted.
And that’s exactly what happened this time but I don’t think (breaking) news of a General Election in December will alter the general thrust of what I want to say.
The biggest political story of our generation goes on and on as we all watch with either bemused detachment or barely-concealed horror.
I don’t propose to recap the arguments or dwell on the division this has created in our country, except to say that I was in Canada when the result was announced.
That’s because I was giving a speech to an international conference for actuaries on my 30-year plus experience of acting as an expert witness for legal disputes over pensions.
It’s a specialised field and, I like to think, one where I and other professionals are proud to be able to help. In fact, I’m certain we do as less than ten percent of cases actually make it to the courtroom.
Finding a win-win
There are a number of reasons for this outcome but the principal lesson is that, although this is ultimately an adversarial process, much of the preamble ahead of formal proceedings is about finding common ground, always with a view to negotiating an acceptable settlement.
Without wanting to sound glib, it’s about a win-win: something which either side can legitimately accept as a positive outcome.
This is the foundation for negotiation and makes eminent common sense. If both sides can avoid what will never be a cheap court case but instead get close enough to what they envisaged in the first place, that must be a sensible strategy.
A polarised debate
Which brings me to Brexit. It’s difficult to see how this lesson might be applied in this case, as the gulf between the two sides seems to continue to widen.
The debate has become so polarised that there appears to be little appetite from either Remain or Leave to accept a compromise to move forward.
Those who want to stay view the current deal with the EU as the best and unlikely to be improved on.
Those who want to leave promote the potential benefits of being a free trading nation in a world of supra-national blocs which operate tariffs. To call them protectionist may be a stretch but they do exist to shield some producers - like farmers - from naked competition.
In search of the middle ground
If the middle ground is a confusing place to be, nothing exemplifies that statement more than Brexit.
Parliament has actually approved a deal - in principle - but will allow no further progress to examine it as is being granted too little time by government, so has rejected it in practice.
The October 31st deadline has now been shifted (with the EU’s assent) to January 31st but with little sign of MPs accepting it in full before then.
Over the decades, professional and legal colleagues have worked pragmatically to settle what are never simple pensions disputes.
It would be welcomed by many if that same approach could be deployed in what is being described as Britain’s biggest post-war challenge but the longer it goes on, the further away any realistic compromise seems.
Will the General Election break the Brexit deadlock and act as a catalyst to move on or will it just emphasise the deep conflicts which have divided the country? What chance is there of a win-win outcome?
While that seems remote, over the coming weeks, we will at least see the point this process brings us to.