Did Gordon Brown’s Problems Start with Europe?

June 25, 2008

The Irish No vote to the proposed European Treaty has thrown the the EEC’s plans into disarray. Ought we to assume that the decision to avoid a referendum in the UK was one of the earliest and most persistent of factors which has damaged Gordon Brown and his Government?

I am wary of arguments that are based on identifying an episode or event which ‘caused’ subsequent changes. ‘For the sake of a nail, the shoe was lost’, runs the nursery rhyme. The implied logic is that of the catastrophe theorist who knows of the mathematical possibility that a flap of a butterfly’s wing can influence the specific path of a Tsunami, half a world away.

That’s why I am cautious in claiming that Gordon Brown’s subsequent misfortunes stemmed from a decision to avoid a referendum on the new Treaty for Europe. Maybe the decision produced a catastrophic change in fortune, ending the honeymoon period, and the so-called Brown Bounce. On the other hand, maybe it didn’t.

The Case for Catastrophe theory

The rise and fall of Gordon Brown’s fortunes seem to follow the pattern of Catastrophe theory. The theory associated with Rene Thom demonstrates how in highly turbulent conditions, unpredictabilities are resolved as a system ‘flips over’ into a more predictable and radically different state. The collapse of a fire-damaged building, the floodwaters that breach a river’s banks, even the apparently calm exterior of a student who wreaks mayhem on an unsuspecting campus are all examples that seem to fit the pattern.

There is much that seems borrowed from catastrophe theory in the newer metaphor of a tipping point.

The basis of both Catastrophe theory and Tipping Point theory is that complex systems may change their conditions in complex and unpredictable ‘non-linear’ ways. Graphs go haywire. As Yates put it ‘The centre cannot hold’.

According to such models, it may be that today’s unpopularity of Gordon Brown reflects a flip-over, after an initial period of pseudo-equilibrium. Subsequent financial and economic woes merely helped demonstrate the new conditions in the system.

The Government will have to find some way to work its way out and upwards in public esteem. This may be through another rare tipping point (Margaret Thatcher may have experienced such a point through the Falklands war, many years ago). Or there may be a gradual readjustment as some of the current anger directed at the Government subsides over the next year or so.

The Case against Catastrophe Theory

The popular understanding of Catastrophe theory is based on one of the more simple versions that has been examined. More complex versions do not easily become represented as having the famous cusp of uncertainty.

There is every likelihood that the political conditions impacting on a Party’s popularity (as an output variable) will require one of the more complex sets of constraints for its modelling.

I hope some more mathematically-skilled colleague will provide a more informed analysis than I am capable of.

My suspicions are more by analogy with the processes of change encountered in processes of change and innovation. The popular theory is that uncertainties (and creativity) occur in a ‘fuzzy front end’ after which the system is plannable and predictable. The chaos subsides into calm. The conventional wisdom of Catastrophe theory is that Systems flip over shift from instability to stability.

Some voices have warned against the dangers of any received wisdom. Systems theorist Ilfryn Price describes this as The Conventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group (acronym Cowdung).

A second line of thought offers an alternative perspective on change has been attributed to the behavioural theorist Karl Weick. Weick argues that social change is essentially a matter of the meaning attributed to that change.

From this Weickian perspective, Gordon Brown seeks to influence the electorate by offering a coherent ‘vision’ or ‘big idea’. If the leader fails, it is because the electorate makes a different sense of the leader’s vision.

Sense-making theory is not opposed to catastrophe theory. Indeed, Weick has provided striking examples of how sense-making breaks down under conditions of crisis.

The Mann Gulch disaster is one of the best known of his studies.

However, the processes turn out to require a highly improbable combination of triggering circumstances which contribute to a shift or breakdown in sense-making. The space shuttle did not fail only because of a faulty O-ring. And Gordon Brown (on these arguments) is not in trouble as a direct consequence of a bad initial decision over the European Treaty.

What Do You Think?

One of the few undisputed bits of evidence in the tale of Gordon’s rise and fall, is that he scored highly in popular polls when he became Prime Minister, but the popularity seemed to change quickly.

The switch seemed consistent with the mechanism of a tipping point or a catastrophic systems failure. Alternatively, this is the way we make sense of a complex political process, and may not reflect a radical and irreversible disruption in public perceptions.

What was it that Harold Wilson said about a week in politics?