You may be wondering why I am using a wrestling metaphor to talk about Brexit. A bit more than on that later, but first.
Back in March, I was sat with my wife watching the blow by blow accounts of the parliamentary indicative votes, when she looked round at me and said,
"Do you know what, if this was a piece of drama, we would give up watching it, because we'd both say it was too far fetched!"
Nothing which has happened since has convinced me that anything to do with Brexit is going to get any less far fetched. In fact it almost seems as if the sky's the limit as to what will happen next.
After pondering the insanity of it all, what I have turned to is an approach I often use in counselling - re-framing. This is where we take an idea or a theory and use it as a lens to explain something that initially seems confusing or mysterious.
So you might be thinking that Brexit is a crisis of democracy, however what I am going to suggest is that there is no crisis, that Brexit is in fact our democratic system behaving as expected. It's not an aberration, rather it is an adaptive response to an earlier unnoticed crisis.
That kind of insight is the sort of thing that can come out of re-framing, and yes it does sound crazy, which is where the wrestling comes in...
WWE is "fake" isn't it?
No, it's not fake, it's a simulation.
WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is a wrestling simulation packaged as a sporting event.
It is a modern development of an artistic tradition going back at least a century. It's purpose is to drive subscriptions and ticket sales.
In WWE no real wrestling happens. Rather what you are seeing is a form of improvised co-operative dance following a pre-determined script. The pre-bout narrative which is also scripted, creates a simulation of mortal enemies, battling out their differences in the ring.
If the wrestling moves were performed for real, then they would result in serious injury and possibly death. Neither does the pre-match enmity represent the real relationships the performers have with each other either.
Bearing in mind the fans in general know and understand that it is a simulation, why would they watch it?
Because they suspend their disbelief, and so gain a cathartic experience similar to that of spectators in ancient Roman arenas. Once the fans are within the simulation, they react and behave as though this was real.
The fans not only experience the simulation, they form part of the simulation itself.
That is, the event's excitement and energy would not appear without the fans response to the action happening before them.
The point about understanding WWE in this way, is that a simulation is not fakery nor is any pretense going on.
A simulation is indistinguishable from reality itself.
That is the fans reaction to WWE is indistinguishable from the reactions they would have if the event was real.
One last feature of simulations is embodied by the wrestling term, kayfabe (KAY-fayb). This is an old carny word, which refers to the portrayal of wrestling as not staged or worked, so it appears real.
All simulations need some kind of system of denial to sustain them.
And perhaps by now you can see where I am going with this...
Parliament is some kind of simulated wrestling match?
Not exactly. What I am going to do is to use wrestling which is clearly simulated to see if I can identify similar simulated features in the way Parliament works.
And then use this to try to understand why parliament has reacted the way it has to the question of Brexit.
One of the common refrains is to ask why is it that parliament has been unable to reach a decision.
And rather than rely on explanations such as indecisiveness, partisanship, lack of a majority, I want to seek one which explains why majorities, partisanship, indecisiveness exist as a feature of parliament in the first place.
Parliament as a simulation
What we have is known as an adversarial Parliamentary system.
The largest party forms the Government, while the second largest forms the Opposition. The purpose of the Opposition is supposedly to hold the Government to account, except that in actuality this is the parliamentary equivalent of kayfabe.
Let's take PMQ's or Prime Minister's Questions, which happens every Wednesday, and is televised. Supposedly this is the time when MP's in Parliament, and in particular the opposition leader can ask questions of the Prime Minister, which the PM is duty bound to answer.
If you have watched or seen reporting of it, the first thing that is obvious is that it is largely a piece of theatre, and the last thing the PM does is to actually answer any questions.
The Guardian devotes a weekly column to reporting PMQ's which contain comments such as "failed to land home" and a judgement at the end of the article is made on who "won", while there is also a best lines section,
Not that different to WWE is it?
Fortunately there are civil servants who are willing to break kayfabe, such as Theo Bertram.
Inside Number 10, there is a section called Research & Information. It meets every Tuesday running into Wednesday, and pours over every piece of communication made inside Government. Whitehall departments are rather infamous for passing the buck, especially for things which might fall between 2 different departments.
The job of R&I is to make sure that no buck passing takes place, especially if that buck happens to fall on the door step of Number 10.
The reality is that it is not the Opposition which holds the Government to account, because no real questions are asked nor are any real questions answered, only simulated ones.
As Theo Bertram points out..
Hardly anyone understands PMQs because, for most people, including those who sit on the benches in the Chamber, all they ever see is the performance in the Commons...
Simulating an adversarial system
A government during it's term in office brings forward legislation and in order for this to pass into law, it must secure the agreement of Parliament.
And you might imagine that it is the role of the Opposition to provide a balancing check on this power, except opposition parties do not represent balance, what they represent is the threat of revolution.
Imagine for a moment being an Opposition MP, who is supposedly required to oppose the government. Imagine having to pretend or fake your opposition by consistently voting against. As an MP you would quickly get disillusioned by the process.
For this to work, you would need a "real" reason for your opposition, a genuine belief that you disagreed with the Government. You would need an oppositional ideology.
We use a left-right metaphor, which originates from the French Revolution, when members loyal to the King divided to the right of the National Assembly, while members opposed to the King divided to the left.
This arrangement is replicated in the Houses of Parliament, so all that is needed is for one side to represent the Crown, and the other to represent the forces of revolution.
Conservatism is an ideology which contains a commitment to traditional values, and so represents a "right wing view" while "left wing views" often describe themselves as "progressive" and thus represent that revolutionary force. Hence it is no surprise that the Conservative Party is often referred to as the "natural party of government."
In the same way that WWE is a simulation of a real wrestling tournament, so the UK Parliament is a simulation of revolution and counter revolution.
In WWE however the "hero" does not always win, while in the UK simulation the system is set up to contain the forces of revolution - the "King" is always meant to win.
A first past the post system of voting, typically delivers a significant majority for the Goverment, so in order to contain the forces of revolution, the Government has to maintain the loyalty of it's party members. When it fails to do this, a simulated revolution occurs, which is what Brexit is.
The parliamentary simulation must therefore also contain the possibility of a simulated revolution.
Real revolution is prevented by allowing simulated revolution.
Parliament does this by directing revolutionary as well as loyalist impulses at itself. To do this requires voter engagement.
WWE creates audience engagement by using simulated wrestling personas and back stories. The aim is to create tension, and the more tension they create without breaking kayfabe, the more engagement they secure.
Parliament works in a similar way. We are presented with opposing ideologies, and the more distinctive these ideologies are, then the more tension that is created, and the greater the voter engagement.
However just like wrestling, parliamentary parties can't break kayfabe either. That is they must seem credible, so a party must both generate and incorporate ideologies present in the voting population.
As a voter I need to be able to distinguish between and have an emotional reaction to each distinctive ideology. Otherwise what would be the point in voting if I held the view, "Politicians are all the bloody same!" And it doesn't matter whether I have strong views in favour or against a political ideology, only that I have strong feelings.
So a growth in revolutionary intent is contained by directing it towards the opposition party, who then in due course become the Government, and so that revolutionary intent becomes a loyalist one.
Understanding our democracy this way, it is no real surprise that opposition parties often seek to capitalise on voter disaffection, nor that significant changes in Government ideology happen following such periods.
Thatcher, Blair and beyond
Thatcher swept to power in 1979, and she did so on the back of significant disaffection.
Also the Conservatives under Thatcher presented a very distinctive and revolutionary ideology, usually defined as strong libertarianism delivered through free market mechanisms.
(whatever that is? and it doesn't matter that you may not understand what it is only that it feels distinctive and you engage with it)
So along with a Government which holds itself to account, is held in check by maintaining loyalty to itself, it now also contains its own revolutionary impulses.
Blair's rise to power in 1997 is somewhat different. Like Thatcher before him he benefited from voter disaffection, however the strategic turn that Labour took, was to capture much of the ground traditionally held by the Conservative Party.
And you might be wondering if voter engagement needs ideological separation, how did Blair manage to create such a large turnout?
What Blair's Labour did was to create that ideological distinctiveness with itself. Even down to self-consciously renaming itself as "New Labour"
Labour lasted until 2010, and again voter disaffection was also a factor, following the Great Financial Crash of 2008. However what happened here was that both main parties primarily focused on a single issue - repairing the "public finances" with the main difference being the degree and length they would apply "austerity" policies.
And what followed was a hung Parliament with a coalition Government, and then after a surprise victory for Cameron, a referendum, followed by Brexit...
The crisis begins...
Using simulation as a way of explaining how Parliament works doesn't point to the start of the crisis as being the referendum, nor the past 3 years of Parliamentary chaos.
Rather the seeds of this crisis began with the Blair Government. By adopting a strategy of capturing the loyalist vote, while retaining your own revolutionary vote, Labour reduced the ideological distinctiveness between the two parties.
You could also go further back to the Thatcher years, where the Government captured the revolutionary impulse which was normally contained in the opposition, and Labour's response can thus be seen as a response to the long term dominance of the Conservative Party.
The actual crisis occured in 2010, with the two main parties adopting too similar an ideological position, and failing to properly satisfy voter disaffection. What follows rather than being a crisis, is the system trying to re-balance itself.
This lack of distinctiveness and separation allows room for alternative distinctive ideologies. The Conservative party has long had a euro-sceptic wing, which has threatened the party with rupture.
However the party was also threatened by a new revolutionary opposition, via UKIP, which had a simple and distinct ideological message - leaving the European Union.
And the problem for the Conservative Party is that this new revolutionary ideology was threatening to capture it's voter base. Cameron's strategy was to focus on this new threat, and attempt to neutralise it by holding a referendum.
So rather than thinking about UKIP as a political aberration, imagine that you are instead managing the WWE and your viewer figures are dropping, because your storylines and simulated fights have become too samey. Would you not try to re-invigorate your viewer numbers by using more extreme storylines and stunts?
What I am going to suggest is that this is exactly what has been happening in Parliament. And remember just like the audience in WWE, politicians, civil servants, the media, think tanks, lobby groups, and voters, not only experience the simulation, they help form the simulation.
So what I am also going to suggest is that Cameron's referendum would not have averted the "crisis" that even if remain had won, it would only have delayed it.
And what we are seeing in the aftermath of the referendum is Parliament and the country as a whole re-aligning itself along this new ideological paradigm. Left verses right has been usurped by leave verses remain.
The perfect politician
One of the common pieces of analysis which appears is about the rise of individuals with narcissistic and psychopathic traits.
Usually this is addressed as being one of an attraction to power, as though this individual was an aberration, which has nothing to do with the structures of power itself.
This is another example of political kayfabe, in which the analysis is on individuals, such as Boris Johnson, rather than on the overall structure of power. And that is the bit I want to look at.
Democracy is meant to curtail the powerful ambitions of narcissists and psychopaths, except that it also acts as conduit.
To be a political leader in the UK, requires 2 sets of seemingly contradictory qualities.
The first is that a leader needs to be popular, obviously. And one thing narcissists are generally skilled at is being charismatic and charming, at least superficially.
However a leader must also be divisive. It's no good having almost the entire population adoring you, because what happens to those revolutionary impulses? If there is no one on the opposition benches, then the kayfabe of holding the Government to account is broken.
So a leader must be both popular and divisive, something which narcissists are good at.
The second set of seemingly contradictory qualities, concerns consistency. To be trusted a leader must have a consistent set of beliefs. He or she must appear to believe in their ideology.
But they must also be ideologically fluid. It's no good having fixed beliefs, which can not be adapted to ideological shifts going on around you, such as Brexit...
So in addition to being popular and divisive, a leader must also be consistent and fluid in their beliefs.
Something narcissists are also very good at. They can be extremely fluid ideologically, and not only give the appearance of believing what they say, they really do believe what they say. They can be consistent in the strength of their beliefs, even if these are contradictory.
Our Parliamentary system also acts as a path to power for narcissists and psychopaths.
To finish I am going to have a look at political kayfabe, and I have already looked at some, such as PMQ's.
The way political kayfabe works is mainly through a process of denial, rather than through creating deliberate fictions, which is the WWE method. In fact political kayfabe almost never uses fictitious material
Lets take politicalese, which is often a way of using political language to mislead, without actually lying.
So if a spokesperson says "The Government isn't considering proroguing Parliament," and a week later Parliament gets prorogued, the official wasn't lying, if the decision had already been taken, because it was no longer being considered when they announced they weren't considering it.
And that is some complicated hoop jumping!
Now most people would consider this lying, except that this kind of language is considered acceptable usage whenever politicians interact with the media and each other in public forums.
So the first thing you will notice is that the media generally rather blandly report what Government spokespeople say without commenting on it. When they do write about it they write about it in an article which is separate from any reporting of something the political establishment has said, and this article often gets quickly buried away somewhere.
Secondly in public forums, politicians almost never challenge each other on their use of politicalese, but they do in select committees. Politicalese evasions are often closely questioned by committee members.
This is a system of denial, a form of political kayfabe, which while it is possible to access, and therefore understand you have to do some work in order to access it.
Most of a political system's inner workings are hidden from the general public, and often even the politicians and civil servants themselves.
One of the reasons for this is that the UK parliamentary system like many other systems are fragmented, yet act together to produce a coherent whole.
So while a person in a particular department may understand how their brand of kayfabe works, they probably do not understand how this fits into the broader picture.
It's not deliberately hidden, nor is it secret, it just isn't talked about so that people can put together a whole picture.
The final round
You may not agree with all or even any of the points I have made, rather my point has been to show in detail how you can use re-framing - taking a theory or an idea and using it to explore something which you find mysterious or confusing.
And of course for me this article is about having some fun, well I find it fun!.
In a counselling context we usually just consider a small aspect, and for me I really love when someone I am seeing comes back with some re-framing they have thought out themselves, especially if it's an idea I haven't encountered before. And yes that does happen, quite a lot!
So knowing all this what might you do about it?
Oh one last thing... I promise... it is definitely the last thing...
There is no such thing as an original idea, and my use of simulation as a means of analysing Parliament draws heavily on the work of Boudrillard (boo-drill-lay), a French post-modern philosopher.
Also the argument I developed around parliament being a means to contain revolution is similar to the ideas of Noam Chomsky who wrote "Manufacturing consent", which I must admit is rather satisfying when two different approaches come to similar conclusions.