The many fences

So it turns out that one of the guiding principles of my research is something that has a name and is a thing [insert your views on being able to build your own degree programme here].

Chesterton’s Fence is simply the notion that if you find things to be in a way that doesn’t make sense to you, you might usefully find out why that is, rather than just changing them to your model of the world.

(If you’re too unmotivated to read the link, GK Chesterton asked his reader to imagine encountering a fence across a road: it’s an inconvenience to you, but it might serve an important function that you don’t appreciate.)

While I’ve not read about it before, it’s exactly this idea that informed my recent piece about why the UK hasn’t asked for an extension to transition. And more generally, a large part of my work has been about individuals and groups who do not follow the same path on European integration.

So it’s nice to have a name to put on it all, and to be reminded that original thoughts are usually not that original. But it also helps with a more recent question that is preoccupying commentators: does the British government actually believe what it says about Brexit?

Rafael Behr and Mujtaba Rahmen have both considered this of late, and have rather similar ideas that indeed Number 10 (and the Tory backbench) do think that making a ‘clean break’ with the EU is the right thing to do, economically as well as politically, and that the disruption of Covid-19 offers a stronger reason to go down that path, because it’s simply some more shaking-up of systems and networks in which Brexit effects will seem trivial.

Importantly, this view is held despite the broad consensus of expert research and opinion: my own view is that this would be a grave misreading of pretty much any part of the body of evidence that could be brought to bear.

And yet, it still is how the government sees things.

So it’s incumbent on us to understand how and why that is. That’s not only because it’s the research-y thing to do, but also because when we find such mismatches of expectation and practice, we need to engage with it.

The whole point of academic research – in my view – is to make a contribution to society and its development towards a Good Life. Since I don’t believe there is a single path to achieving that, it becomes essential to understand the different routes that each of us take, to consider their merits and build from that. If others take a different path, then there might be something useful to take from it, positive or negative, but we can’t simply ignore it, because other people’s choices have effects on us regardless.

As the protesters on the streets of the US can tell you, passivity comes at a cost at least as great as activity.

If we try to handle such things by simply arguing that we are right and they are wrong, and so must change, then we risk finding that things do not change.

This is not about moral equivalence, but about being able to step into another’s position and understand why they are as they are.

As a case in point, it was a reasonable assumption that a key driving dynamic of the current Number 10 set-up that public approval was a key priority, both directly for actions taken and indirectly through securing another term.

But the Cummings business, and the evolving policy on Covid-19, both suggest other priorities exist too. The former underlines the role of personal ties among the Prime Minister’s immediate circle, while the latter speaks to the influence of other elements in policy – personal experience of the illness, a (somewhat conflicted) understanding of the need for scientific input.

All of this matters all the time, but right now it matters because we seem to have failed to make much sense of Brexit policy, because it sits so far from what our theories and prior experience tell us should be happening.

If we wanted to get philosophical about it, then we might observe that to rail against the inflexible rules that bind us is a very human instinct: no one likes to be told what they can do. But these are not inflexible rules; just models of expectation.

If others don’t match up to those expectations, then it can’t simply be a matter of making them change: sometimes we have to change the models.